Benedict McAleenan: We have to go negative to beat climate change

8 Jul

Benedict McAleenan is Senior Adviser, Energy & Environment at Policy Exchange.

I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but we’re about to completely blow the budget. We had planned to stay within no more than 1.5°C of global warming by the end of this century, but we’re about to hit that mark in 2040, if we don’t use all the tools available.

When we go beyond 1.5°C, things really get out of control. Permafrost thaws, releasing methane that worsens the rate of change (this has already begun). Polar ice caps lose their ability to reflect energy back into space, so things speed up again (also already underway). Greater evaporation causes a more humid atmosphere, again raising the heat.

If this was an asteroid heading for earth, we would be pouring resources into a hundred possible solutions, from simple nudges right through to high-tech warheads. But on climate we have so far not used an important secret weapon, and it’s time to get moving.

According to a report last week by McKinsey launching a new ‘Coalition for Negative Emissions’, we need to start deploying ‘Negative Emissions Technologies’ at scale. This are systems that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air and store it away. They include some very old techniques and some very new ones. Some can be used now at low cost (like tree planting), but other more technological solutions need investment now so we can use them before 2030 at megaton scale.

Restoring peatland and planting trees are the most obvious and least technical options, capturing carbon in tree trunks and sphagnum mosses for decades or hundreds of years – including, of course, in sustainably harvested timber. We need to start now, because these options take decades to deliver, though they are also the lowest cost in this range.

Moving up the technological scale, there’s ‘enhanced weathering’, where rocks are crushed to encourage them to absorb carbon from the air through chemical processes. They’re then spread over fields and beaches or ploughed into soil. Soil carbonation is also at the heart of another negative emissions technique: using waste to generate gas also creates a carbon byproduct known as ‘biochar’. The gas goes to heat homes or generate electricity, the carbon biochar is ploughed into soil, storing the carbon and boosting soil fertility.

Finally, there are the industrial players of negative emissions. Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS) and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) both suck carbon out of the atmosphere and either store it away or use it – although only the former is strictly negative emissions.

DACCS uses huge fans and filters to capture the carbon from the air, and the firm Carbon Engineering already has plans to build a DACCS plant in Scotland. BECCS lets trees and plants do the carbon capturing naturally, but then uses parts of those plants for energy production, capturing the emissions before they escape.

These are not uncontroversial solutions. Greta Thunberg calls them “unproven technologies”, and she casts such doubt because she thinks they are a fig leaf for oil companies. If we just suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, her thinking goes, then there will be less pressure to stop putting it there in the first place. Her solution is something called ‘Absolute Zero’, as opposed to ‘Net Zero’.

Net Zero means accepting that we can’t stop absolutely all carbon emissions by 2050 and using negative emissions to address the shortfall. Greta’s Absolute Zero means no aeroplanes if they’re not zero-carbon, no steel if it’s not zero-carbon, no exceptions for myriad fiddly details that are the reality of life.

Not only that, but this ‘unproven technology’ line is bizarrely luddite. If we accepted its logic, then we would be tying our hands behind our own backs. In climate terms, we’d have no wind turbines beyond those featured in the art of Monet. In pandemic terms, mRNA vaccines were unproven less than 30 years ago. Climate change is urgent enough for us to try the options available.

Yet the UK is a very small player in global GDP and in carbon emissions. Why should we invest in such moon-shot technologies as BECCS, DACCS and enhanced weathering? Why not leave it to the US and China, who both pollute far more than us? There are three special reasons for the UK to lead on negative emissions.

Firstly, this is a massive opportunity in a high-growth sector with the potential to sell our solutions around the world. As the saying in Silicon Valley goes, “the best way to make a billion dollars is to solve a problem for a billion people.” Countries around the world are signed up to targets for emissions reductions and they want solutions including electric cars, wind turbines and, yes, negative emissions. As Andrea Leadsom and Amber Rudd have pointed out for Policy Exchange’s COP26 programme, we have excellence in engineering solutions that we can sell to the world.

Secondly, as Policy Exchange’s Future of the North Sea report noted, we have some legacy assets that make us very well placed to do that. We have an oil and gas industry with world-leading expertise in transporting gases to and from geological storage sites, and it’s currently looking for a new role to play in the world. Not only that, but we’ve spent forty years emptying gas and oil from such storage sites in the North Sea and we can refill them with our unwanted carbon. That’s a facility we can also sell to others, creating jobs along the North Sea littoral.

Finally, we, as a nation, made a big contribution to climate change, even if it has been the by-product of huge contributions to global prosperity and progress. They’ve been two sides of the same coin, so it’s logical that we take the lead again in solving the next part of the problem.

We need negative emissions technologies to stave off climate change, that much is known. The Climate Change Committee has supported that view and Ministers have followed suit. They should stay the course by investing in a suite of these emerging technologies, but also support much greater deployment through market solutions, such as a market for negative emissions, which can eventually work within the UK’s new Emissions Trading System. Without these ‘unproven technologies’, the carbon budget will be blown and the targets of the Paris Agreement will be a pipe dream

Sam Hall: How to help poorer people meet the costs of net zero

6 Jul

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

Last week marked two years since MPs unanimously put into law a target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Since then, the target has been reaffirmed in the Conservatives’ election-winning manifesto, a raft of carbon-cutting, job-creating policy measures have been implemented, and many other large economies have followed the UK’s lead in setting net zero targets.

Our main challenge now is not the overall cost of the target, which is both affordable and dwarfed by the many benefits, but ensuring fairness in how costs are allocated.

While it is certainly true that net zero will require significant new investment in clean infrastructure and technologies, these investments will bring wide economic benefits, notably a net increase in employment, and will cost less as a share of GDP than the damage caused by unchecked climate change.

As we accelerate emission cuts over the next few years to achieve the UK’s more stringent targets for 2030, this will trigger additional investment in building retrofits, renewable energy, and transport infrastructure, which will ease post-Covid unemployment.

Thanks to the ingenuity of British scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in developing new technologies and making existing technologies better and cheaper, the overall costs of net zero are being revised downwards all the time. And since clean technologies like electric cars and heat pumps are much more energy efficient than the fossil fuelled equivalents, there are likely to be significant fuel savings for consumers in the long term.

More important than the overall costs is how they will be distributed across society and the economy. Many of net zero’s critics highlight the impact of net zero on the poorest as one of their chief concerns. They are right to make this a priority, although fortunately so far negative distributional effects have been minimal. According to the Climate Change Committee, household energy bills have remained flat since the passage of the 2008 Climate Change Act. But we need to ensure that forthcoming technology changes aren’t regressive either.

This distributional analysis is one of the main focuses of the Treasury’s net zero review, which is currently being finalised on Whitehall. But as well as identifying potential regressive effects, the Treasury must also provide policy solutions. To do this, they can look to a number of excellent recent centre-right think tank proposals on how to drive forward net zero in a way that both enhances fairness, and boosts jobs and the economy.

Take critical clean technologies like carbon capture or low-carbon hydrogen, which due to a lack of scale remain expensive, yet are a promising source of green jobs. When commercialising these nascent industries, we should follow Onward’s recommendation and avoid subsidising them through energy bills, since low-income households spend a greater share of their income on energy.

The government was right recently to cut subsidies for more expensive electric vehicles (EVs), lowering the cap for the Plug-in Car Grant so that vehicles with a sticker price of more than £35,000 were ineligible. Ministers should also consider Bright Blue’s recent call to subsidise second-hand EVs, so that low-income people can benefit from this government funding pot too, and access these cheaper-to-run vehicles.

Similarly, as more people switch to EVs and need affordable overnight charging, we should protect people without private driveaways from paying extortionate prices to use on-street charge points. Policy Exchange has proposed a system of price caps for charge point operators in receipt of public funding.

Fairness is particularly important in the drive to retrofit Britain’s homes for net zero, given the scale of investment required. As Bim Afolami has advocated on this site and Simon Clarke more recently, the Treasury should offer vouchers for the most expensive types of insulation, such as solid wall insulation, and heat pumps. Even though a home’s running costs will be lower after it’s been retrofitted, the upfront costs are often a barrier to people installing these home energy improvements.

Finally, if the Treasury does extend carbon pricing to more of the economy, as is rumoured, it should consider giving some of the money back, in the form of a carbon dividend, to low-income households, as the Centre for Policy Studies has argued.

Once these investments have been made and these technologies adopted, our society will be fairer. People on lower incomes who typically live by busy roads will be less exposed to harmful air pollution. The fuel poor, who live in draughty homes, will spend less on their energy bills each month, while avoiding cold-related ill-health.

And if we replace Fuel Duty with dynamic, congestion-sensitive road pricing, driving will be cheaper for people living in rural areas and towns, who after all have few alternative transport options compared to city dwellers. But to realise these benefits, the government needs to help people make the necessary investments.

If we were to pursue the alternative approach of not mitigating climate change, unfairnesses in society would be exacerbated. Low-income households, for example, are disproportionately exposed to flood risk and to the health impacts of heatwaves, according to the CCC, and due to a lack of savings, they are more financially vulnerable to climate-related hazards. Similarly workers in traditional fossil fuelled industries – concentrated in ‘red wall’ constituencies – would have less opportunity to transition into new green industries and could end up in ‘stranded jobs’ as other countries switch to clean energy.

Some will argue that, in the face of these challenges, we should just abandon net zero, but that would be economically foolish, diplomatically isolating, electorally damaging, and much more besides. Others will argue that it’s not the government’s job to intervene to tackle inequality. But since the government isn’t a passive observer of this technological change, it can and should make sure it doesn’t adversely affect the least well-off and instead reduces their cost of living and makes their lives more convenient.

Now that our climate targets are becoming embedded, net zero politics is entering a new phase. Now is the time to put fairness at the heart of our net zero strategy.

Clive Moffatt: The Government should come clean – and explain that reaching the net zero target by 2050 may not be possible

4 Jun

Clive Moffatt is an energy market analyst and former chairman of the UK Economic Security Group.

Back in April, the Government set the world’s most ambitious climate change target to reduce carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 (compared to 1990 levels) with emissions targeted to fall to net-zero by 2050.

Cutting out coal from the electricity generation mix was the main reason why in 2020 the UK was able to slash emissions to a level 51 per cent below 1990 levels, but this had little economic impact and was only made possible by the existence of plentiful and cheap natural gas. The next stage will be far more difficult and costly.

Realising the targets will require nothing less than a complete overhaul of the energy network, the removal of natural gas from the energy mix – not to mention the plans to change dramatically how we move about and what we eat.

Looking at the energy sector alone, there are so many technological uncertainties that estimates of the costs of transition to zero vary considerably, with capital cost estimates alone ranging from £50 billion per annum for the next 30 years (Climate Change Committee) to £100 billion per annum (National Grid). Furthermore, the bulk of the costs in terms of consumer levies and/or taxation is likely to fall on those less able to pay.

What has been sadly missing from the debate so far is a clear and agreed set of policy guidelines and criteria to evaluate policy options and replace advocacy at any cost.

For a start, the UK cannot afford to go it alone and what we do should be based on what others do to meet the global challenge.

Second, there is no point transitioning to net zero if there is an increased risk of energy shortfalls – heat and light – and so the security of affordable supplies must be considered.

Third, the Government’s does not have a good record at picking technology winners and so the market must be allowed to deliver least-cost solutions.

Finally, natural gas supplies the bulk of our domestic heating and power requirements and will continue to have a critical role to play in the energy mix up to and beyond 2050.

On this basis, a slower but more secure and affordable route to net zero is possible and the following 10 action points could form the basis of a detailed policy framework to be announced in a white paper ahead of the next General Election in 2024 or earlier.

  1. A longer and more gradual rising CO2 price to underpin new investment in “green” energy and allow time for industry to become more energy efficient.
  2. Incentives eg tax rebates and/or subsidies to allow heavy industry to cut emissions – based on agreement at a sector or company level.
  3. Carbon equalisation tax on imports – to offset unfair competition to UK industry from imports from countries with less onerous emissions restrictions.
  4. No more nuclear fission after Hinkley C – the costs of large scale nuclear far outweigh the economic benefits in terms of both additional baseload capacity and emissions reduction.
  5. Cut wind capacity target from 40GW to 20 GW by 2040 to avoid incurring massive transmission constraints and system balancing costs associated with intermittency.
  6. To underpin baseload power security of supply, use capacity payments to support the construction of efficient CCGT capacity with potential for carbon capture but not imposed at the outset.
  7. Gas (without CCS), Demand Side Reduction (DSR) and batteries to compete in open cost/reliability based auction to deliver peak flexible supply at key points in the local distribution network.
  8. Evidence to date suggests that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) would increase power prices sharply, The Government should support prototypes pending a more detailed impact assessment.
  9. We will be reliant on imported natural gas for heat and power up to and beyond 2050. So we need to underpin new investment in flexible gas storage – currently less than two per cent of annual gas demand.
  10. Date for outlawing new gas domestic boilers to be no earlier than 2035 and dependent on a detailed welfare assessment of the reliable options available to replace natural gas.

Looking ahead to COP26 later this year, the UK and a very hesitant EU are the only ones among the world’s 18 largest greenhouse gas emitters to have submitted detail emission reduction plans.

So now would be good time for the Government to come clean and “tell it how it is”, namely that for very good reasons – such as technological constraints, security of supply, industrial competitiveness and especially affordability – reaching the net zero target by 2050 might not be possible.

Boris Johnson would be criticised for being a COP26 “party pooper”, but industry and consumers would probably breathe a sigh of relief.

Sam Hall: Conservative lessons from Houchen and Street about how to respond the Greens

11 May

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

The dominant stories from last week’s elections were the Conservatives’ hat-trick of English triumphs in Hartlepool, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands, and the SNP falling short of a majority in Scotland. But amid these headline-grabbing results, a new trend emerged: the quiet rise of the Green Party.

The Greens won 88 new council seats across England, including from Conservatives. Yes, they did well in their traditional strongholds, such as Bristol, Sheffield, and around Liverpool, where their main competitor is Labour.

But they also defeated incumbent Conservative councillors across England in places as diverse as Surrey, Sussex, Derbyshire, Stroud, and Northumberland. They won an additional two seats in the Scottish Parliament and an extra member of the London Assembly, recording their highest ever vote share in both contests.

Despite two brief surges around the 2015 general election and the 2019 local elections, the Greens have for decades struggled to break past five per cent of the national vote. But the signs from Thursday are that they are on the rise, and could become an electoral threat not just to Labour, but to the Conservatives too.

The reasons for the Greens’ recent electoral success are varied. Public concern about the environment is at historically high levels, with media and government focus on the issue growing, and climate change impacts becoming more visible. It’s understandable that, as the environment becomes more salient, more voters turn to the party whose defining mission is to save the planet.

Factionalism on the left is undoubtedly boosting the Greens, too. As Keir Starmer repudiates Corbynism, he is pushing some of the party’s more left-wing supporters towards the Greens, who have long supported some of the more radical ideas of John McDonnell, such as a universal basic income. The Liberal Democrats remain toxic to many on the left for going into coalition with the Conservatives. And in Scotland, the Greens provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to the SNP.

Greens across Europe have benefited from a similar trend. Just a few months out from federal elections, the Greens are currently the highest polling party in Germany, two points ahead of the CDU. Greens are part of the coalition government in Austria, after securing 14 per cent of the vote in the last year’s elections. There was also a green surge in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, with the green bloc growing from 50 seats to 74.

However, this phenomenon isn’t simply about splintering on the left. Nor is it the case that the Greens are just taking votes off Labour and allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle. As Thursday’s results show, the rise of the Greens threatens both the main parties.

That said, the threat shouldn’t be overstated at this stage: the Greens only control one council, Brighton and Hove (where they are a minority administration), and they still only have one MP. But a response will be needed nonetheless.

First, here’s what to avoid. Counteracting the Greens doesn’t entail copying their policies, which are a bad combination of the unfeasible (net zero by 2030), the unpopular (a meat tax), and the economically damaging (a four day week). But neither should they Conservatives shouldn’t become hostile to the entire green agenda, which is popular with a majority of voters. Nor should they ignore other policy priorities in favour of an exclusive focus on the environment. As James Frayne has argued convincingly on this site, this approach wouldn’t keep the party’s voter coalition together.

Instead, Conservatives should unite behind the strategy that the Prime Minister articulated in his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, linking net zero to people’s immediate economic concerns. This prospectus has the best chance of binding together the Conservatives’ diverse supporter base and stalling the rise of the Greens.

This strategy has worked well for Ben Houchen, whose tireless advocacy for Teesside is helping to attract many of the UK’s leading net zero investments to his area, from GE’s new turbine manufacturing factory and BP’s blue hydrogen plant, to one of the first carbon capture projects and a hydrogen transport hub. He has been one of the biggest advocates for the PM’s green industrial revolution, including on this site, and was re-elected by a landslide.

The Government should copy this formula in other parts of the country. It should invest in enabling infrastructure, fund large-scale green demonstration projects, and put in place market frameworks to attract private investment in new clean industries, such as battery manufacturing, floating offshore wind, heat pumps, and green steel production.

But while it can unite Conservatives, this approach to net zero is divisive on the left. The red-greens can’t decide if they support ‘degrowth’ as a route to tackling climate change. They debate whether people’s lifestyles must be drastically curtailed, or whether to focus on clean technology. And they are divided over whether to attach radical cultural policies on race and gender to their environmental agenda.

The other main element of the Conservatives’ response should be to implement ambitious but practical environmental policies that improve people’s communities and their quality of life. Here, the Conservatives’ other great election-winner from Thursday, Andy Street, provides a blueprint.

He has overseen major improvements in public and active transport in the West Midlands, reopening rail stations, extending metro lines, putting in segregated cycle lanes, and freezing bus fares. He is showing how mayors can connect up their region, reduce the cost of living, and improve the local environment at the same time.

National government should enable more pragmatic local environmental leadership like this. Ministers could give councils the powers and funding to create and safeguard a new network of wild green spaces (a ‘wilbelt’) around towns and cities. They could devolve more funding to metro mayors to insulate social and fuel poor homes in their regions. And they could fund transport authorities to replace old diesel buses with electric or hydrogen ones, and to install electric charge points along the strategic road network.

The Greens, by contrast, have a poor record of delivery on the few occasions when they’ve been entrusted with office. Remember their failure in Brighton and Hove to arrange the bin collections, which lead to strikes and images of rubbish piled up on street corners. There is a political opportunity here for Conservative environmentalism that sets ambitious targets, actually delivers them, and does so in a way that benefits the economy and people’s standard of living.

The Greens had a good night on Thursday. But by uniting behind Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution, and replicating the approach of Ben Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservatives can prevent them rising further and can make the environment a winning, unifying issue for the party.

Chris Whiteside: Why Britain’s first new coal mine for decades should open in the ward I represent

23 Feb

Chris Whiteside MBE is County Councillor for the Egremont North & St Bees division of Cumbria County Council, and also Deputy chairman (political and campaigning) of North West England region of the Conservative party.

ConservativeHome readers will know of the controversy over proposals for Britain’s first new coal mine for decades, in Copeland, West Cumbria.

I am county councillor for the division which includes most of the application site.

Almost to a man and woman people in the vicinity are in favour, while almost all the opposition comes from people living many miles away. The most vocal opponents live on the far side of the deepest and longest lakes, and the highest mountain, in England.

Copeland

Copeland moved from the red to the blue column two years before the rest of the former “red wall” seats, but is typical of traditional communities in Northern England which voted Labour for generations but finally lost patience with that party while it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.

When elected to Cumbria County council, I was the first Conservative councillor in history to represent parts of my division. Voters in West Cumbria who elected Conservative councillors like me, and Conservative MPs like Trudy Harrison and “Workington Man” Mark Jenkinson, lent us their votes. We have no more automatic right to their continued support than our Labour predecessors had. Local people expect us to fight harder for them than those predecessors did.

We will.

The historical context

I was a student during the 84-85 miners’ strike. With Iain Dale, I was a ringleader of a campaign to sack a Labour student union president who misused used union resources to support the strike.

I now have more sympathy for comments made to me in 84-85 by students from traditional mining communities – like the area I now represent – than either I or those who made them would have imagined possible at the time. Particularly about affluent middle-class people from many miles away trying to take jobs from a less affluent community which they knew little about and probably couldn’t find on a map.

Woodhouse Colliery is expected to provide 518 jobs and fifty apprenticeships in a community which includes some of the worst pockets of deprivation in Britain. Spending will also boost the local economy and supply chains, on ONS multipliers providing a further estimated 380 jobs.

The facts about the mine

The proposed mine will not produce coal to burn for energy. It is specifically restricted, in the proposal itself and planning conditions, to mining coking coal to make steel, mainly for the British and European steel industries.

If you want more renewable energy, you need steel – It takes lots of steel to make a wind turbine. Britain needs steel for many other purposes too.

Currently there is no economic way to make new steel without coking coal. More than 85 per cent of scrap steel in Europe is already recycled so there’s limited scope to increase the 39 per cent of steel currently coming from recycling.

Ironically, the same Lib-Dem MP who leads opposition to the mine also calls for more steel to be made in Britain. Only a Lib-Dem could so comprehensively face both ways at once as to call for more steel to be made here while effectively working to ensure it’s made with imported coal. Most coal used by British and European steelmakers today comes from the USA or Russia.

Technology will change. There may be improvements which remove need for coal: or in carbon capture technology to use coal without damaging the environment. But the steel which this country needs in the immediate future will be made with metallurgical coal.

Better to make that steel in Britain and Europe with coal mined in an environmentally sensitive way here, than to use steel made with coal from Russia and America, often strip-mined in the Appalachians and shipped over the Atlantic.

Council votes about the mine

Councillors have voted for the mine three times: all three votes demonstrated cross-party support among Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and Independent councillors. Two votes were unanimous. At the third meeting, one councillor from each of the three parties went against but there was a four-to-one margin in favour including majorities of votes cast from each party.

It’s nonsense to suggest that councillors who voted for the mine hadn’t considered the environment, didn’t know what they were doing, or can’t be trusted to make the decision. Such comments are an attack on local democracy.

The council’s officers went through the proposals in exhaustive detail during a process which lasted literally for years. Each report to committee ran to hundreds of pages describing all the objections and every imaginable issue, including lengthy consideration of the impact on Britain’s carbon footprint. A hundred conditions were attached, including a time limit of 2049, the year before Britain’s target to go carbon neutral. Another condition limits greenhouse gas emissions.

Before voting on the plans, councillors listened to hours of presentations from officers and representations from objectors and supporters.

Most of those who attack the committee sound like the bloke in the pub who, because he’s read an account in a tabloid newspaper of a court case lasting weeks, is confident he knows better than the jury who sat through the whole thing.

The latest developments

When Robert Jenrick declined to “call in” the mine and said the decision should rest with Cumbria County Council, most people expected permission would swiftly be granted in line with the October decision. Instead the council is putting it back to committee for a fourth time.

The objection the council received to granting permission is public domain because the group responsible, South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) – published it on its website.

SLACC argue the decision should be revisited because, since it was made, the advisory committee on climate change published proposals for the UK’s sixth carbon budget.

That document comprises recommendations to ministers, as those who study it will quickly find. Although anyone reading the letter from SLACC’s solicitors who didn’t know better might get the impression that it’s already legally binding, it isn’t.

Fifty Conservative parliamentarians and local government leaders, including most of the MPs representing Cumbria, the mayors of Copeland and Tees Valley, and many “Northern Research Group” MPs wrote to the Leader of Cumbria County Council on 18th February supporting the mine. Their letter made a convincing case that SLACC’s arguments misrepresent the sixth carbon budget.

Conclusion

This saga raises deeply concerning issues. It shows how vulnerable Britain’s planning system can be to high profile, articulate pressure groups even if they have negligible local support.

Anyone who has a serious objection to a proposal should be entitled to have their concerns properly investigated, once. But when similar points are brought up again and again, there comes a point when we are witnessing the attempt to frustrate a democratic decision through delay.

But delay is not the best way to decide whether planning proposals should go ahead. Delay from those who can’t win a democratic vote but use every trick in the book to obstruct what they cannot defeat is the worst of all.

George Freeman: The industrial strategy reforms I led helped to deliver Britain’s vaccine success. Now for the next phase.

1 Feb

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

The combination of Covid-19 and the Crash of 2008 have left this country facing the most serious crisis in our public finances since 1776. Unless we make the post-Brexit, post-Covid recovery a transformational renaissance of enterprise & innovation on a par with that unlocked by Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, we risk a decade of high debts, rising interest rates and slow growth.

We have a truly unique opportunity before us. As a science and innovation superpower, with the City of London now outside the EU’s rules for the first time in nearly fifty years, we can unlock a New Elizabethan era of growth – with Britain a world-leader in global commercialisation of science, technology and innovation. It is what our entrepreneurs have been crying out for. Now is the moment to make it happen.

That’s why I’m delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help set up the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister & the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation, and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the Taskforce will consider and recommend “quick wins” to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit post-Covid recovery.

Rest assured: there will also be no big report or a thousand pages of footnotes to wade through. We will be crowd-sourcing the best ideas from the business community and the entrepreneurs and innovators who are the engine of our economy.

The Prime Minister has asked me to bring my career experience in business starting & financing high growth bioscience technology companies as well as my experience as Minister in Health, BEIS and Transport leading our groundbreaking Industrial Strategy for Life Science which has paid such dividends this year.

The reforms I led in our Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, MHRA and NICE reform, Accelerated Access procurement have been fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.

We now need to make Brexit & Covid the catalyst for bold reforms to unlock big UK opportunities for recovery & GlobalBritain across a range of high-growth sectors such as those I have worked on extensively as both entrepreneur and Minister:?

  • LifeScience: harnessing the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health & innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials & value-based pricing.
  • Nutraceuticals: health-promoting “superfoods”, cannabis medicines.
  • AgriTech: smart clean green twenty-first farming technology like the blight resistant potato banned by the EU.
  • CleanTech: new biofuels, Carbon Capture & Storage & digital “smart grids” to reward households & businesses for generating more and using less.
  • BioSecurity: harnessing the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal & human biosecurity.
  • Digital: removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework.
  • Hydrogen: using the full power of Gov to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics.
  • Mobility: making the UK a global test-bed for new mobility technologies,

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent 15 years working in life sciences around the Cambridge cluster, financing innovation. I saw time and time again how the best British entrepreneurs and their companies struggled to build business to scale here in the UK.

So often we have invented the technologies of the future and failed to commercialise them effectively.

After several years working as the Government Life Science Adviser, I published my report for the Fresh Start Group on The EU impact on Life Sciences: Avoiding the Global Slow Lane.

Three years before Brexit, the report was the first to highlight the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ and the increasing tide of ‘anti- biotech’ legislation – driven by a combination of the German Green Party, Catholic anti-science and lowest commons denominator regulation by the “precautionary principle” which was having a damaging effect on the Bioscience Economy and risked condemning the EU – and by extension the UK – to the global slow lane in biotechnology.

The report set out how the genomic revolution was beginning to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture to help generate huge economic, social and political dividends for mankind. Billions of people were being liberated from the scourge of insufficient food, medicine and energy. The main threat to that? The EU’s hostile regulatory framework.

This was seen clearly in numerous case studies. At the time, the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF and major U.S firm Monsanto to announce their withdrawal from Europe in agricultural research and development. My report argued that unless something was done soon, other companies would follow suit, with dire consequences for the UK Life Science sector.

The report recommended a shift away from the increasingly widely used risk-based ‘precautionary Principle’ and greater freedoms around data protection, using public healthcare systems to help accelerate early access to medical innovations, and for the UK to be able to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops.

The UK’s departure from the laws and requirements of the EU provides us with a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign and improve our approach.

This new Taskforce, therefore, is emphatically not another long-term Whitehall de-regulation ‘initiative’. Neither is this is about cutting workers’ or environmental rights that we rightly guaranteed in the 2019 election manifesto.

It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.

But we must think innovatively about supporting businesses to start and grow, and make the most of the cutting-edge technologies and sectors we nurture in our universities for global impact. For example, why don’t we use our freedom to pioneer new disease and drought- resistant crops, and use our aid budget and variable tariffs to help create new global markets for UK Technology Transfer?

We won’t unlock a new era of the UK as an Innovation Nation generating the technologies and companies of tomorrow with technocratic tinkering. We need bold leadership, clear commercial vision and reforms to support innovation and enterprise. The two go hand in hand. We won’t unlock an innovation economy without an enterprise society. So we will need to look at tax and regulatory incentives for high risk start/ups like the “New Deal for New Businesses” I proposed back in 2010 to drive recovery after the Crash.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Together we must seize it.

Does the UK really have the political will or state capacity to hit Johnson’s ‘ambitious’ Net Zero targets?

4 Dec

This morning’s papers feature the latest developments in the Prime Minister’s green reset. Today, the headline is his pledge to reduce British carbon emissions by 68 per cent by 2030.

As the FT notes, hitting this target will “will require restructuring a significant portion of the economy”. Making half of all cars on the road electric by the end of the decade, as the Daily Telegraph reports, would be just the start.

So far, there hasn’t been much pushback against this “ambitious new target”. This is perhaps not surprising, since we are still at the stage where the Government is doling out cash. Visions of the ‘green industrial revolution‘ can dance safely before MPs eyes.

But there are reasons to expect that this won’t last. Not because of any widespread disagreement on the underlying science, but because it will require a lot of long-term infrastructure development of the sort that the United Kingdom has become increasingly bad at.

The goal for widespread electric cars, to pick just one example, would mean installing a comprehensive national network of charging points on a par with the existing one for petrol stations. This is probably doable, but would you bet on a nation that just ‘rolled back’ its plans to deliver a national high-speed broadband network?

According to the National Audit Office’s new report on Net Zero, delivering it in the time now set down in law “will require wide-ranging changes across society and the economy at a pace which leaves little room for delay”. Yet as Rachel Wolf noted in a recent piece for this site:

“Our economy and lives are built off copious amounts of affordable energy. It is the main reason we were able to escape the destitution of the past. A life unimaginable to even the elite in the Eighteenth Century is now accessible to nearly all. Therefore, any successful programme to reduce emissions must understand that people will not go backwards. Policies must work within the grain of people’s lives – not rewire them.”

If the Government (or the next one) doesn’t want to end up having to choose between brute-forcing its way towards Net Zero through policies such as pricing the low-paid out of international travel or eating meat (goodbye levelling up), it needs to lay the foundations for a smooth and efficient transition to greener systems which are just as effective as the current ones – and to do so at the very moment it has just used up much of its fiscal wriggle-room fighting Covid-19.

Others have pointed out how badly the pandemic has exposed the decay of British state capacity. But it didn’t take a global crisis to know that British politicians are deeply averse to making important long-term infrastructure decisions when there is any pain involved. We haven’t found the will to expand Heathrow, or Felixtowe, and are only limping towards an incomplete high-speed railway. Nobody expect the Prime Minister’s mooted Irish Sea Bridge to get built, and MPs continue to mutiny against any attempt to solve the housing crisis by actually building enough houses.

Would you bet on such a political culture seeing through (let alone successfully) an attempt to deliver “wide-ranging changes across society and the economy at a pace which leaves little room for delay”?

Ed Birkett and Benedict McAleenan: Hydrogen holds huge potential for British industry – here’s how to achieve it

28 Oct

Ed Birkett is Research Fellow in the Energy & Environment Unit at Policy Exchange and Benedict McAleenan is Senior Adviser at Policy Exchange.

In the fight against climate change, there are no silver bullets. We won’t solve it through technology alone, nor by telling people to mend their sinful ways. But there are some potential game changers, and among those is hydrogen.

The Prime Minister is reportedly a convert to the potential of hydrogen as a pioneering fuel that could kick-start a green recovery. As well as helping a recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, for some regions it would reinvigorate industry after decades of decline, delivering on the “levelling up” agenda.

In 2018, Policy Exchange explored the potential for hydrogen as a fuel of the future and highlighted the opportunities in northern industrial hubs. However, there’s a risk that our politicians will get carried away. It has huge potential but also very real limits, and there’s a danger of government investments going wrong.

Hydrogen isn’t the right answer everywhere

Hydrogen has huge potential as a low-carbon fuel and in revitalising industrial areas of the UK, making it a natural focus for the Government’s net zero and levelling up agendas. Our report, Fuelling the Future, described how hydrogen is widely used in industrial processes, including removing sulphur from fuels, manufacturing fertiliser, and even producing margarine. But most of this is hydrogen produced from natural gas, which releases carbon, leading to the nickname “grey hydrogen”.

There are already pilots underway to trial “green” hydrogen supply and Britain is a global leader in the technology needed for electrolysis (producing hydrogen from water using electricity). In the future, with lots of cheap, clean electricity from offshore wind farms, there is huge potential to scale up hydrogen in the UK, benefitting British manufacturing companies whilst decarbonising refineries and chemical plants.

Once the costs of hydrogen fall, it could be used in the blast furnaces of Port Talbot to replace coal and to secure jobs in our nationally strategic steel industry. It could then be expanded to other industries including glassmaking and manufacturing electronics.

But it is heavy transport that perhaps offers the biggest long-term potential for low-carbon hydrogen. Batteries look likely to dominate the market for passenger cars, with manufacturers like Nissan and Tesla offering vehicles with increasingly longer ranges and shorter charge times.

However, for heavy transport, including lorries, planes, buses and ships, the weight of batteries could be prohibitive. In these applications, hydrogen offers a solution. Once the right infrastructure is in place, hydrogen vehicles will offer fast refuelling whilst minimising weight. Several British manufacturers are champing at the bit to deliver hydrogen-powered public transport.

Despite this potential, hydrogen is not a silver bullet. When compared to petrol, diesel or natural gas, it is much less energy dense, which means it needs to be stored under high pressure, increasing costs and complexity. For many use cases, hydrogen’s Achilles’ Heel is that it is inefficient when compared to using electricity because there are many more conversion steps in the chain. This means that a hydrogen-powered car will use twice as much energy as a battery-powered car to travel the same distance.

Some have touted hydrogen as key to the UK’s energy security, ending our reliance on foreign fuels. The UK is a leading manufacturer of electrolysers, for instance, which produce hydrogen from electricity and water, which means that we could use UK wind farms to power electrolysers, generating hydrogen.

However, based on current forecasts, the bulk of the UK’s low-carbon hydrogen is expected to come from natural gas. The UK’s declining gas reserves means that we increasingly rely on imported gas, so a rapid expansion of hydrogen risks tying us into a fuel that we will increasingly import from countries such as Qatar.

Hydrogen hubs are the right place to start

None of this means that hydrogen doesn’t have an instrumental role to play in a Net Zero UK, but we need to be careful and to consider these challenges.

First, as we argued in 2018, we should create “hydrogen hubs”. This will support innovation in the areas that already use high-carbon hydrogen such as refineries and heavy industry.

Helpfully, demand for hydrogen is concentrated in areas that the Government wants to “level up”, such as Humberside, Teesside and Falkirk. These industrial centres can also deliver economies of scale and therefore cost savings, assuming that government carries some of the development risk in return for regional growth.

Second, these areas should pioneer wider uses of hydrogen, exploiting their engineering skills base to innovate and learn. The Government has already announced that the first “hydrogen transport hub” will be based in Teesside. The Teesside hub will be a testbed for hydrogen vehicles, including boats, trains and planes, following Policy Exchange’s 2018 recommendations.

Finally, the Government should engage the market wherever possible. The success of offshore wind in the UK is a combination of private sector innovation and Government support to push costs down. The same principles should apply to hydrogen. Efficient markets also keep options open if hydrogen remains too costly and other technologies emerge that are better and cheaper.

None of this is bad news. Acknowledging hydrogen’s limits allows us to design the best approach that puts British industrial towns back in the vanguard of an industrial revolution. It may not be the single answer to our future fuel needs, but it has huge potential.

At our Conservative Party Conference fringe event a few weeks ago, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen called for the Government to “put hydrogen on the same footing and on the same platform as other technologies like electrification and batteries”. The Teesside hydrogen transport hub is the first step to achieving this, but there’s lots more still to do.

Alex Game: Students are the key to environmental progress – but we need to lose the tribalism in our debates

9 Oct

Alex Game is a Campus Coordinator with the British Conservation Alliance. He studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is the founder of the British Conservation Alliance Society.

With a new academic year now upon us, around a million students have returned to their campuses after a strange summer, to say the least. This is where environmentalism has to be forged and nurtured in the very near future. Student activism within our universities is an important part of our democracy. It’s a perfect environment for students to gain confidence in their own ideas, and debate with those whose opinion differs from their own. This is not only because they are usually echo chambers of one’s ideas and views, but they give students confidence to explore different opinions that they wouldn’t probably hear if they weren’t on a university campus.

It is for this reason that I have in recent months become a lot more pro-active in this area. I have joined the British Conservation Alliance (BCA) as a campus co-ordinator and set up my own BCA society at my university, Manchester Metropolitan University, both to promote the BCA’s ideas and policies and to help bring about change on a broader scale.

The BCA is important in this conversation about the environment because we offer students an alternative, not just the same anarchism that most students seem to want to follow. This is why we have set up an extensive network of campus leaders at over 30 UK universities to promote our ideas. Environmentalism is something I have always felt passionately about. But I sat on my hands for far too long. Then, I stumbled across the BCA and, as they say… the rest is history. Students are essential to environmentalism, because we are going to be dealing with the mistakes made by past generations unless real change is made soon.

Recently we have seen Extinction Rebellion (XR) causing havoc in Londonlimiting our free press and even a flash mob outside Buckingham palace. They are asking the Government to employ reckless policies, such as committing to net-zero by 2025. A policy such as this simply is impossible. We do not have the capacity to achieve this yet and our economy isn’t robust enough either. The process of reaching net-zero has to be a gradual process achieved through market-solutions, the BCA supports the Government’s legislation of reaching net-zero by 2050.

XR doesn’t really propose many policies; its activists just shout and scream about us wishing to turn green at a ridiculous rate. XR’s actions are often not productive or helping save the planet, it is more often than not just turning people away from environmentalism completely. Not only that, but when policy is proposed by the Government, it is shouted down as “not going far enough”. This must not be the case going forward. We must encourage any change no matter how small or incremental it is. Of course, we can always encourage our government to go further but we must not criticise it when it does commit to real change.

The BCA over recent months has released a book called Green Market Revolution. This states simply how we can change our economy to a green one, not recklessly but carefully and intuitively. It includes real ideas and policy propositions that can help governments understand what they have got to do to. These policies will help turn our economies green and achieve carbon neutrality through market mechanisms such as clean tax cuts or “green loans” for businesses aiming to pursue solutions which are advancing to our goal of preserving the environment for future generations to come.

The conversation about our environment is well overdue and students need to be at the heart of it. They will be the ones suffering if we don’t take real action soon. They are also the ones who will be making decisions in future governments. This means we must make people aware now of what they can achieve in government towards helping preserve our environment.

But we must soon come to a cross-party consensus on how to move forward on our environmental issues and end the tribalism. The sooner we do that, the quicker we can act and more effectively.

Mark Jenkinson: The case for coal

21 Sep

Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.

Earlier this week saw the publication of a decision by the Secretary of State to reject the application by Banks Mining for an opencast coal mine on the Northumberland coast, to which environmental campaigners have reacted with glee – with Friends of the Earth saying “Coal mines must be consigned to the history books if we are going to avoid climate breakdown”. It is this statement that I think is particularly damaging to our shared aim on net-zero by 2050.

It is worth remembering that the Highthorn development was a huge opencast on a site without previous activity, and that the planning inspector that gave the original permission made the point that the proposal would have an adverse impact on landscape character of substantial significance. Slight changes to the weight given to other elements by the Secretary of State tipped the sensitive planning balance. This decision should not be lead us to assumptions on other proposals, such as West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery in Copeland next door to my Workington constituency.

While we have rightly committed to eliminating thermal coal from our electricity production, coking (or metallurgical) coal is an entirely different matter. It is important that we understand the difference. The UK and Europe import 16.4Mt of coking coal every year, with the CO₂ emissions from its transport five to seven times higher than if it was produced closer to the point of use.

Economic growth and demand in growth for steel are undeniably linked. Our plan for growth will necessarily bring a demand for steel, and we should place much heavier weight on the use of UK produced steel. The low-carbon energy technologies that we will rely on in the future – without exception – are underpinned by steel. That steel production requires coking coal for the foreseeable future. Any increase in UK steel consumption without domestic production of that steel and its process components will result in increases in our offshored and domestic carbon footprints.

Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF) are often portrayed as the green saviour of steel production, but aside from the obvious questions around the high energy requirements and where that electricity will come from, EAFs are still not fossil-free – requiring the addition of coking coal, albeit in much reduced quantities.

The primary feedstock for EAF is recycled steel, and while crude figures suggest that the UK is almost self-sufficient in scrap steel, the EU and World markets are not. This fails to take account of the fact that the scrap steel has be of exactly the right composition to make the requisite end product, so most EAF produced steels are a mixture of scrap steel and Direct Reduced Iron (DRI). Nitrogen produced in the EAF process remains a significant problem, as it makes for brittle steel.

The DRI process itself is still heavily reliant on thermal coal or natural gas, while trials such as those in Sweden to use hydrogen continue. Some point to the intention of HYBRIT to have a commercial plant running by 2026 as the way forward, but again without even touching on feasibility in the short to near term of replacing plants with such energy intensive replacements, they fail to realise that the HYBRIT process is for production of DRI – the problems in the EAF process, and the necessary use of coking coal remain.

It is absolutely right that we scale up our investment into hydrogen production, storage and usage as a fossil fuel replacement. But we have to be honest with ourselves that it is unlikely to be the panacea for the road to net-zero by 2050. In the same way that wind, solar and marine energy production will feasibly replace our fossil fuel production but not our reliance on nuclear for baseload, hydrogen will replace some of our fossil fuel reliance but not all. These two subjects – electricity availability and hydrogen production – are intrinsically linked by the energy intensive nature of the latter.

We must seize the narrative around net-zero, and be honest about what that means for the people in our constituencies. Counter-intuitively, part of the route to net-zero is to bring back some of our carbon footprint that we’ve offshored by importing from countries that often have dubious environmental protections. Growing our economy, and revitalising our UK manufacturing base will necessarily bring carbon emissions. But we must work harder and smarter here in the UK to reduce our reliance and to reduce the impact.

The recent Measuring up for levelling up report from Onward, which led to the creation of a Levelling-Up Taskforce of which I’m a member, shows the stark reality that average GVA per capita has grown faster in London than anywhere else post-deindustrialisation, while in constituencies like mine in Workington it has slipped back or remained stagnant.

We have a significant opportunity to level up across our constituencies if we can rejuvenate our UK manufacturing base, but we won’t do that by looking at policy-making through a lens that appears more focused on absolute zero, than it does net-zero