Main Image Credit No time to waste: a hay stack fire burns in West Yorkshire in August 2022. The UK recently experienced record-breaking temperatures which have been attributed to climate change. Image: Yorkshire Pics / Alamy
Short-sighted political decision-making is putting the UK’s environmental security at risk by holding back the net-zero transition and exacerbating the cost-of-living crisis.
In May 2022, G7 leaders pledged to stop funding new fossil fuel developments abroad. However, by June this pledge had been watered down, as new provisions clarified that in ‘exceptional circumstances’ funding ‘can be appropriate as a temporary response’. This is indicative of the change in attitude shown by Western governments towards their climate commitments in light of renewed public pressure to solve the worsening cost-of-living crisis.
G7 leaders are at a crossroads between their ongoing commitment to the net-zero transition and more immediate challenges presented by the war in Ukraine, such as energy supply shortages and rising prices. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, political commentators suggested that it may force the West to reduce its reliance on foreign fossil fuels. However, some have discerned a growing hesitancy from policymakers for fear of short-term impacts and a failure to acknowledge the win-win potential of net zero to enhance energy security and drive down prices. With the impending winter energy shortage and a cost-of-living crisis, it is becoming clear that net-zero commitments are at risk as UK politicians seek short-term solutions to complex problems.
Delaying the net-zero transition is a flawed approach, since continued reliance on foreign fossil fuels leaves us vulnerable to geopolitical instability and potential price shocks could exacerbate cost-of-living issues. The risk of reaching global climate tipping points draws ever closer the more we delay the transition towards large-scale sustainable energy sources. To avoid exhausting what’s left of our carbon budget, net-zero commitments need to withstand the short-termism that is driven by five-year election cycles and volatile geopolitical crises.
National and Economic Security
The Ukraine invasion has led to an all-of-the-above approach seeping into G7 commitments, whereby in an attempt to guarantee security of supply and lower prices, new fossil fuel production is supported temporarily alongside investment in renewables. While this response has been praised by some who believe that it will result in long-term gains for the energy transition, there is a strong argument against this.
In the face of Russia's illegal action and the UK’s untapped potential for renewable energy generation, there has never been a better opportunity to move away from fossil fuel dependency
By incentivising continued investment in foreign fossil fuels via loopholes in the windfall tax, the UK risks cementing a high-carbon future. Hostile regimes such as Russia see this as a signal to act with impunity owing to Western dependency on foreign energy sources. In the face of the most recent illegal action taken by Russia, and the UK’s untapped potential for vast and varied renewable energy generation, there has never been a better opportunity to move away from fossil fuel dependency. While it is apparent that any successful clean energy transition will be heavily reliant on Chinese critical mineral supply chains, these new vulnerabilities pale in comparison to the lose-lose battle we currently find ourselves in, stuck between unsustainable energy sources and the whims of an aggressive and unpredictable regime.
Continued reliance on foreign fossil fuels also has significant implications for economic security. Figures from the most recent UK Energy Security Strategy show that as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, gas prices in Europe rose by more than 200%. It is consumers who will have to foot this bill, with the average household price cap having risen to £3,549 per year. While short-term relief needs to be provided for society’s most vulnerable, the government must look longer-term at reducing our underlying dependencies. Continued exposure to an international energy market that the UK government has little control over will only exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis. Moreover, UK commitments to decarbonise the energy sector by 2035 will be near-impossible while so many of the fossil fuel-producing corporations are foreign state-owned entities who can circumvent UK legislation. The UK government needs to avoid implementing strategies as a knee-jerk reaction to crises when the transition to renewables would create significantly greater economic and long-term gains. If we continue to pursue short-termism, the crisis could in all likelihood be over by the time the strategy sees results, and it will be the consumer who bears the brunt of the long-term impacts.
The public should be made aware that new fossil fuel exploration could seriously delay global climate goals, leading to irreversible effects on our environmental security. A 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, labelled a code red for humanity, claims that global emissions must decrease by 50% by 2030 in order to preserve the chance of a liveable future, yet they currently show no real signs of decline. This warning is not new; in May 2021, the International Energy Agency stated that no new developments of oil, gas or coal can occur if we are to meet our goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. The UK government insists that negative emission technologies (NETs) such as Carbon Capture and Storage, mean that we are on track for our climate goals. However, NETs are so far largely speculative, untested and unproven. If these promised magical erasers of carbon do not deliver, we could find ourselves in significant carbon expenditure debt, with no way out. Meanwhile, NETs which require significant land use, such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), have the potential to contribute to the cost-of-living crisis by increasing prices and causing widespread food insecurity.
All of this could undermine existing efforts to encourage the energy sector to decarbonise by reassuring investors that fossil fuels are here to stay. In May, an investigation conducted by The Guardian revealed fossil fuel company plans which would create an environmental impact equivalent to 10 years of emissions from China. With rocketing energy prices, fossil fuel production is only becoming more profitable, with top firms earning almost $2 trillion in profits over the past three decades.
Playing the Long Game
With energy prices likely to remain high for the foreseeable future, the UK must now invest in long-term solutions such as energy efficiency and the insulation of homes, and be held accountable for deploying them. Despite a Conservative pledge in 2019 to spend £9.2 billion on heat and energy efficiency, the 2021 spending review fell short by £2 billion and household energy efficiency improvements have decreased by 90% since 2012. The government must make funding for energy efficiency a top priority without delay, as it has been heralded as a no-regrets solution and has the potential to reduce demand for Russian gas imports by 80%. This is also a way to target those most vulnerable to fuel poverty, since low-income families are more likely to live in energy-inefficient homes.
Accountability around climate commitments needs to increase, with more coherent and transparent strategies to support them
The most recent Energy Security Strategy failed to fully address these issues. Policies outlined in the strategy were not bold enough and neglected the importance of the energy trilemma of security, affordability and sustainability. Accountability around climate commitments needs to increase, with more coherent and transparent strategies to support them. Currently, there is a tendency to overpromise and underdeliver.
The UK government should increase public awareness and adopt an evidence-based, data-driven approach to demonstrate that net zero is the cheapest and most sustainable solution to the current energy trilemma. Surveys show that the next generation of young voters will be increasingly climate conscious, so leaders need to look beyond short-term electoral gains. The Conservative party leadership race has dismantled the UK’s response to these issues by creating a period of political inaction and instability. Moreover, while the candidates reaffirmed their commitment to net zero during the contest, concern persists around whether pursued policies will aptly address the complexities of the energy trilemma. For example, during his campaign, Rishi Sunak pledged to reverse plans to scrap the ban on new onshore windfarms, while the newly elected prime minister, Liz Truss, was responsible for scrapping subsidies for solar farms as environment secretary, describing them as a blight on the landscape. With an uncertain future ahead, the key to preventing political short-termism from jeopardising our net-zero future is to effectively demonstrate not only the environmental, but also the overwhelming economic benefits of the transition.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Former Research Analyst, Energy Security