Climate and environmental policy are meant to be areas where the newly ‘independent’ UK takes an international lead after Brexit, symbolised most immediately by hosting the COP26 summit in Glasgow later this year.
Things haven’t started well, to put it mildly.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to take centre-stage in global climate policy took a wrong turn when Claire O’Neill, the former UK energy minister sacked last week from her role leading COP26, chose the day of the summit’s launch event on Tuesday to dish the dirt.
O’Neill told the BBC that Johnson had previously admitted to her that he “doesn’t really get” climate change, and in a scathing letter released via the Financial Times warned the Prime Minister he was “miles off track” from delivering the most ambitious COP ever, as he had promised when she was appointed president of the event last year.
O’Neill’s comments quickly made headlines as big as those of Johnson’s own flagship policy for the summit’s launch day – the ending of sale of new petrol cars in 2035, five years earlier than planned.
Recharge readers may remember O’Neill better as Claire Perry, whose spell as UK energy minister included hints that the Conservative government would look again at the lockout of onshore wind from its support arrangements that has dismayed the renewable energy sector since it was imposed in 2015.
Perry in 2017 said onshore wind was “absolutely part of the future” and promised she would look at ways to allow projects back into the contract-for-difference (CfD) system in regions where they are wanted – which in practice would overwhelmingly have meant Scotland, where the winds are strong and so is the political backing for renewable energy.
Since then, Perry has come and gone, first as energy minister, then as a member of the government, and now as COP president, and nothing has happened. The governing party of the UK looks as far away as ever from allowing what is arguably the world’s most effective and cheapest source of new zero-carbon power an easy route to market on the doorstep of the UN climate summit it’s hosting.
The result has been a collapse in installations and a surreal situation that just 73MW of onshore wind is currently under construction in a top-ten world economy. Only this week the boss of SSE, the Scottish-based utility, said Britain's 2050 net-zero ambitions are in danger unless the UK government gives onshore wind developers some sort or revenue certainty, either via the CfDs or another mechanism.
Meanwhile, the same government is falling over itself to back initiatives such as the admittedly intriguing, but ultimately unproven, small-scale nuclear reactor technology that developer Rolls-Royce claims can compete with renewables on cost.
The UK renewables sector is justifiably buoyed by the country’s achievements in offshore wind (though even there, regulator Ofgem this week cast doubt on the current transmission regime's ability to deliver Johnson's 40GW offshore target).
Industry group RenewableUK stressed the role a range of technologies has to play in the international climate fight.
The body’s head of policy and regulation, Rebecca Williams, said: “Renewables are right at the heart of the solution, as they offer a practical and cost-effective way of taking action at scale. Achieving net zero emissions at the lowest cost will require a wide range of technologies, including onshore wind as well as offshore, and innovative technologies like floating wind and tidal power.
“The UK’s leadership in renewables can drive global change by showing other countries what is possible.”
With O’Neill’s allegations that he “doesn’t get it” ringing in his ears and COP26 rudderless without her – there's even talk of switching it from Scotland to London – Boris Johnson’s best way to show leadership would be to hire a new summit chief asap, then heed the advice of his own climate advisers and get onshore wind back on the road.