UK must support 'quiet revolution' in clean energy

As the first UK National Infrastructure Assessment is released, urging the government to take advantage of the burgeoning opportunities afforded by the renewable energy sector, Caroline Lucas, Co-leader of the Green Party, says it's time for the government to clean up its act and get on with the UK's clean energy transition

Caroline Lucas at Spring Conference
Caroline Lucas at Spring Conference

Image: Nick Hooper

Caroline Lucas

The country is sweltering – and we know that climate change makes extreme weather like this more likely. With the current heatwave breaking records around the world, scientists from the University of Oxford have warned extreme summer heat will become the new normal if we do not cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In this context, the government today received guidance on a long-term vision for the nation’s infrastructure for the first time. Three years after it was established, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has produced its first-ever assessment. In light of the changing climate, and the many opportunities that a zero-carbon economy presents, the NIC argue that now is the time for the government to put climate change at the heart of our national future – but will it do so?

Today’s report comes just weeks after the government pushed ahead with expansion at Heathrow, so it’s clear that its love affair with climate-busting infrastructure projects is far from over. With work on the most costly object ever built well underway for the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, and precious countryside in West London being cleared to make way for HS2, you don’t have to look far to see the weakness in the government’s environmental agenda. The cost of these projects to our planet will be great. Unfettered airport expansion will put our climate targets out of reach, while Hinkley will produce waste equivalent to 80 per cent of all the waste so far produced in the UK in terms of radioactivity.

With climate change having an increasingly devastating impact across the world, the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) is right to highlight energy efficiency as one of the common sense policies available to the government if it is serious about tackling the greatest challenge we face. Yet the last few weeks have highlighted repeated failures from the government to make meaningful progress. Only last week a report found the government is set to miss its fuel poverty target by a staggering 60 years. For those unable to heat their homes the current rate of progress is devastatingly slow – meanwhile, the government’s climate advisors recently branded the lack of high efficiency standards when building new homes as “ridiculous”.

A better energy system would not only protect our planet by reducing energy consumption, it would promote a more just society too. Recent government figures showed the poorest households in Britain are unsurprisingly the most likely to be worst affected by fuel poverty. A nationwide rollout of home insulation would ensure no one in Britain is forced to choose between paying for energy and heating their homes – and create hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs.

The government must look also to clean up Britain’s energy before it reaches people’s homes. Wind power could provide electricity for half the cost of Hinkley Point C, begging the question of why the government is ploughing on with nuclear power when there are cleaner, cheaper alternatives available. In a significant move, today’s NIA spoke of the “quiet revolution” in renewable energy, and said it was time for the UK to drop its plans for a new fleet of nuclear power stations.

As temperatures broke records in recent weeks so did UK solar power, providing its record weekly levels of electricity to the grid. It is these new technologies that are the building blocks of the future, and with the right political will, could position the UK as a world leader in green infrastructure. The question to the government now is whether it will act on the evidence and advice before it – or keep ploughing money into projects of the past.

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