Del Boy Shapps’ videos are vulgar, tasteless, bizarre – and brilliant.

20 Apr

Unfortunately for him, Grant Shapps is indelibly associated for me with an ex-girlfriend. Being a resident of Welwyn Garden City, and of stoutly left-wing views, she had conceived a burning distaste for her local MP. Personally, since Shapps and I share the honour of having grown up in Croxley Green, I have more time for the man – and especially so that he is now becoming a minor internet sensation.

Over the last few months, Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has begun to twin announcements from his department with a series of slightly bizarre YouTube video. One features him conversing with Michael Portillo on a station platform. Another has him meeting a Tik-Tok personality whilst discussing railway announcements. A third has him with Quentin Wilson, long ago of Top Gear, engaged in a Wild-West style shoot out with electric vehicle chargers in a Tesco car park.

Whilst these have a faint air of Alan Partridge at his most desperate, Shapps’ most recent entry tops all his previous efforts. Pictured in front of a green screen, he announces the Government’s new Great British Rail Sale through a series of costume changes. A warm coat for Edinburgh; shades and a crab for Cornwall; a rucksack for the Lake District. This culminates with the technology packing up, and Shapps informing us from a station platform that it is time to stop living virtually – and go and explore the UK by rail.

Again, I’m not sure if the minute-long sequence is a conscious callback to Wayne’s World or not. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon find Shapps in a car with Mike Myers, belting out ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ whilst advertising a campaign to fill-in potholes. Certainly, this is a memorable way to get across the message that various ticket prices have been cut for the next two months. But before he starts mimicking Mr Mercury, there is a serious point to address about Shapps’ recent performances.

They are, frankly, vulgar. The production values are consciously cheesy, and Shapps’ delivery has the clipped and uncomfortable edge of a Dad trying to get down-wid-da-kidz. It is hardly becoming of a Cabinet minister to be making a goon of themselves on YouTube in order to flog cheap railway tickets. Would Peel, Disraeli, or Salisbury have been caught pratting around playing cowboys and Indians in a supermarket car park?

Well, perhaps those Victorian titans wouldn’t have. But Shapps deserves more credit than derision for his online announcements. If Enoch Powell could be caught on a pogo stick as Minister for Health, and Edward Heath could be found on a skateboard as Leader of the Opposition, then a Tory statesman of Shapps’ stature can be allowed to hold a crab on the internet. Take it as the 21st century version of the eye-catching photo op.

Shapps is a businessman by trade. A few of his efforts have received their fair share of gentle mockery, including his use of the pseudonym Michael Green to flog customers a “get-rich-quick scheme” involving eBooks. In that sense, he reminds me of another great business personality with a flair for self-promotion – a certain Derek Trotter. If it is the Alan Partridge side of Shapps the comes through in the videos, all the better – a minister looking a prat is much more watchable than a minister being dull.

But like Del Boy, Shapps’ ministerial career has had its ups and downs, with resignations, demotions, and an occasionally turbulent time as the Party’s co-chair. Yet since becoming Transport Secretary in 2019, Shapps has been one of the Government’s quiet star performers. He has presided over the effective nationalisation of the Northern Trains franchise, the creation of Great British Railways, and the launch of the Integrated Rail Plan for northern England – and Covid travel restrictions.

In short, this amateur pilot has been a steady captain of his department through turbulent times without receiving too much attention. Even if it does involve him looking a bit silly online, it is appropriate that these videos have given him a brief and entertaining chance to enjoy the spotlight. As Peckham’s finest liked to put it – he who dares, wins.

And so I now fully expect Shapps to swap a train for a yellow Reliant Robin in his next video.

Meera Vadher: The gaps and opportunities in Johnson’s new electric vehicle strategy

19 Apr

Meera Vadher is a Director at Flint Global. She was until recently Special Adviser to the Transport Secretary and before that, Chief of Staff to Mayor Andy Street.

Love them or loath them, Electric Vehicles (EVs) are booming. EV sales were the auto sector’s standout success last year. More EVs were sold than the previous five years combined, and 2022 is set to be the year EVs outsell diesel cars.

Fears about fuel resilience and the rising cost of petrol and diesel will lead to more families taking the plunge, perhaps sooner than envisaged.

Greater EV adoption means we reduce our energy vulnerability. But this is not a quick fix given only two per cent of cars in the UK are electric or hybrid (as of December 2021).

The long-awaited UK electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure strategy, the Government’s plan for building the infrastructure around future EV demand projections, with a view of encouraging consumers to buy in confidence that there will be adequate chargepoints for all, was released late last month.

The Government accepts that the pace of electric vehicle infrastructure deployment is too slow. By 2030 ten million vehicles, a quarter of all cars and vans, will need to be zero emission at the tailpipe to meet national climate commitments. The Government wants to increase the number of chargepoints tenfold to 300,000.

The solution? Three broad solutions are offered: invest in the strategic road network, develop and implement local strategies, and implement consumer-focused reforms.

Of the three, the most impactful will be the local measures, as they will force local authorities to have a plan; £1.6bn of funding is confirmed, but largely from existing sources. The Treasury is holding its line of not announcing funding outside of set-piece Treasury events.

The key tools to achieve this ambitious target are the £950m Rapid Charging Fund, a newly announced £450m Local EV Infrastructure Fund, and upcoming legislation to regulate chargepoints, driving the shift towards open data and contactless payment.

However, this does not mean Government can start rolling out more chargepoints from now. There is much more detailed work to do ahead of implementation, and we won’t see a material shift in installation pace until at least mid-2023.

Deploying funding on the Strategic Road Network

The Government has previously said that there would be at least six, but up to nine, ultra-rapid chargepoints per motorway service area. The strategy takes this further, pushing for more than 12 of these chargepoints at some sites.

Significantly, there is going to be further consultation on mandating that service area operators and large fuel retailers must meet minimum chargepoint numbers at specific sites.

We can expect this consultation fairly soon as the Government will be keen to get any legislation passed in the next session of Parliament, which starts after the Queen’s Speech on 10 May (popcorn ready).

However, the £950m Rapid Charging Fund itself will not go live until 2023 because of the further consultation, much later than expected. The next few months will be used to flesh out the details between departments, where there is likely some disagreement on what the best use of the fund is.

Local Charging Strategies

The Government says it is going to legislate for a statutory obligation on Local Authorities to develop and implement local charging strategies. They will also be responsible for planning for the electrification of fleets and the development of new commercial models.

The strategy points to the potential to consolidate charging funds for greater transparency and clarity for investors and operators.

This part of the strategy is important given the criticism that the Government has received for spatial disparities in EV charging infrastructure. By giving LAs new duties, the Government can assess progress and determine future funding on their successful delivery.

Expect some shaming of (Labour-led) councils in future Transport Orals, and talk of Levelling Up vehicle electrification.

Of the total £1.6bn allocated to EV infrastructure under this Government, around £500m will be used for local charging infrastructure.

Of that, £450m of that is for local charging schemes and £50m is reserved for helping Local Authorities properly resource themselves to develop their plans – much needed in many areas of the country that have not been able to take advantage of previous funding schemes because of capacity constraints.

Consumer-focused interventions

The Government will introduce legislation to regulate the chargepoint market. This will ensure there is open data, price transparency, payment methods (contactless) and reliability.

The upcoming legislation is also expected to cover minimum standards and a requirement for all chargers to be smart. Chargepoints will need to meet 99 per cent reliability standards by the end of 2023, putting pressure on providers to ensure chargepoints are regularly maintained and upgraded.

EV drivers are constantly frustrated by the different payment mechanisms and apps required on different charge points, let alone when chargepoints are out of use. Moving to a contactless, easier to understand pricing system, where you know the chargepoint is going to be working, should help debunk range anxiety and ease-of-use fears.

Gaps and opportunities

There are still some gaps and opportunities for the Government to simplify delivery. For example, instead of announcing planning reform for chargepoints, it has committed to exploring options for introducing a unified consent process, including a process for obtaining planning permission and highways consent simultaneously.

The strategy does not focus on the future of motoring taxes, or on the issue of electricity supply.

Given the recent headlines about automotive supply chain issues exacerbating issues in domestic car production, it is easy to forget about the long-term need to build more chargepoints. The Government has stayed true to its word by publishing this strategy, albeit delayed, and its aim to reach 300,000 public chargepoints by 2030, despite the wider issues in the sector.

It is clear from the Prime Minister’s comments on the strategy and the narrative surrounding it that the focus on net zero going forward will be hinged on the simple message of “driv[ing] down our dependence on external energy supplies”.

For those who say that Net Zero is dead, it’s not. It’s just having a makeover.

Sanjoy Sen: The Government should address the implications of pursuing Net Zero

13 Apr

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn & Deeside at the 2019 general election.

We engineers prefer to keep things simple. I’ve enjoyed working in a wide range of industries, from the traditional (such as steel and petro-chemicals) to the modern (including in renewables and clean transport). And I believe all of those sectors will evolve and continue to play vital roles in our society and economy. It’s not an either-or choice between old and new.

But things are always more complex with politicians: witness the deepening schism between the Conservative Environment Network true believers and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group outsiders.

Net Zero is fast becoming a highly polarised issue with little room for nuanced debate. That is especially the case for those of us who are positive about new technology opportunities but want to ensure that plans and costs stay realistic. Whilst internal differences can be played down for now, as rising bills start to bite and the next general election looms, positions are likely to harden. Before picking a side, we should reflect on some of the implications of Net Zero.

Does Net Zero empower or hinder Putin? 

Since the Ukraine crisis began, Net Zero has been widely touted as the answer to tyranny: an autocrat can turn off your gas supply but he can’t stop the wind blowing or the sun shining. Unfortunately, the reality is more complicated. The penny is finally dropping in the USA that swapping Arabian crude for Chinese battery lithium just creates a new form of energy insecurity. Meanwhile, Germany has long embraced green growth – yet now finds that solar and wind aren’t enough, and that it is terrifyingly dependent on Russian gas.

Here in the UK, establishing gas pipelines from a much friendlier neighbour (Norway) and constructing liquefied import terminals to access global supplies have served us better. Closing down our gas storage was perhaps less wise. But whilst Germany remains ideologically anti-nuclear (despite it being its best route for reaching Net Zero), Hinkley Point C is slowly taking shape with more to follow via the new Energy Security Strategy. But perhaps the biggest lesson from Germany is in the speed of transition: we need to prioritise establishing our new power generators before taking old stuff off-line if we are to avoid being left exposed.

Is Net Zero important to (Conservative) voters? 

It’s perhaps telling that the Energy Security Strategy makes relatively little mention of Net Zero. It’s possible that come the next election, after months of soaring energy costs, relatively few voters will genuinely have green issues as their top priority, especially if going green means being willing to accept major associated financial and lifestyle implications. Moreover, the minority that do are most likely not Conservatives, let alone Conservatives in swing seats. And, poised to help focus minds on where our core vote exists, once again looms Nigel Farage. His Net Zero referendum idea could gain traction in the no-nonsense Red Wall.

Going into the next election, selling Net Zero on emissions reductions alone is unlikely to cut it. Many voters do reflect on their personal carbon footprint (and adjust certain lifestyle choices accordingly). But most know that China emits substantially more and thus have a keen sense of their relative impact. To succeed, Net Zero is best re-framed in terms of more tangible gains. It’s a positive sign that we are starting to see these in two crucial areas: jobs and transport.

Can Net Zero ever be a vote winner? 

New employment opportunities will be key to Net Zero acceptance. EDF reckons some 22,000 are now at work on Hinkley Point C. Expect similarly impressive numbers if other large-scale nuclear projects (most likely Sizewell C and Wylfa) are signed off on the back of the current crisis. Although further off, the government is also finally backing small modular reactors: Rolls-Royce envision 40,000 regional jobs and £250 billion in export potential. Meanwhile, Red Wall industrial clusters Humberside and Teesside look set to be re-invented around hydrogen.

Net Zero is also (fairly or unfairly) perceived as an excuse to punish motorists. The government’s recent £7 billion announcement goes beyond merely swapping diesel buses for zero-emission (electric or hydrogen) alternatives. By also making bus usage easier via some long overdue and obvious measures (clearer fares, integrated networks, infrastructure upgrades) motorists outside London should begin to see some realistic alternatives to driving. Meanwhile, as technology improves and prices fall, drivers are increasingly going electric by choice, not coercion (or even wokeness). So far in 2022, 15% of new car sales have been electric. The Government can encourage further take-up by maintaining purchase plug-in grants and lower tax rates for company cars.

And should we give in to those protestors? 

The Putin-induced rush to increase domestic energy supply first has to get past some pretty determined opponents. How significant are these? Fracking potential remains something of an unknown for now (as exploration was pretty swiftly curtailed). Moreover, whilst onshore wind can play a useful role, it is perhaps not as pivotal as proponents claim. Instead, the Energy Security Strategy backs further North Sea gas investment; this can deliver more domestic production in the short term. But let’s be aware that future output is never going to get anywhere near the millennium peak.

The Energy Security Strategy is very much focused on increasing supply, not tackling demand. But as every engineer knows, the heat losses from uninsulated pipes and structures can be eye-watering. UK buildings often perform far worse thermally than those in Europe. Improving our building stock could well prove a quick and cost-effective means of reducing utility bills and import dependence. Polling suggests little public sympathy for protestors and their glue-based antics – but whilst we might not be too impressed with Insulate Britain, we should not lose focus on how vital it is to insulate Britain.

Howard Flight: We must not forget India, despite China’s rise

4 Apr

I lived and worked in India in the 1970’s. Partly as a result of COVID, my wife and I had not been back for four years until recently. Having just returned from a brief and lively visit to Delhi, we have have been amazed at the economic growth achieved over the last decade.

The roads are clean; smelly Putt Putt vehicles have gone. There are relatively no beggars blocking up the streets, which are themselves much cleaner. Delhi now has a smart and efficient underground system which was built at below budgeted costs. Individuals are generally well dressed at all levels of society. Middle class Indian citizens also now go skiing in the winter. The food is good with a wide range of choices.

The forecasts are that India will now grow faster than China over the coming decade, although India will still have a lot of catching up to achieve. It is becoming a major consumer economy. India has a lot of the UK’s characteristics, where China has been more like Germany. For the foreseeable future Chinese growth rates are likely to slow, and those of India to accelerate.

When I was living in India most of the cars were Ambassadors. Now to spot an Ambassador is a rarity. The cars in India are effectively the same as in other parts of the world with the shift to electricity beginning. The car population in Delhi is the same as any other major city, with new roads servicing improved access.

What particularly impressed me was the amount of change in modernisation which has occurred in a relatively short time. Mumbai is probably still ahead of Delhi, but Delhi is catching up.

Education in India have also much improved. The British system is the main model where learning to speak English is a crucial education ingredient. A powerful plus is also that good independent secondary schools can operate in India on surprisingly low costs and are thus affordable for much of the population. I have helped a new secondary school in Bihar which now has over a thousand pupils and where the fees are surprisingly little.

India has also been its own “tech developer” for some 50 years. As a result, India now has a significant high-tech industry/sector which can be expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. India has also had the remarkable political achievement of being and remaining a democracy where the electorate is some 12 times that of the UK.

Many approve of the current Modi Government, which has got a lot done; others are critical, but it is accepted Modi will stay in office until India’s next General Election. India also appears to be very competent at managing huge General Elections without any major corruption.

India’s management of the pandemic has also been impressive, again given the huge numbers of people involved. I believe India will be driven forward over the next two decades substantially by the rising tide of well-educated and strongly motivated young people going through an improving education system.

There is, however, one important matter where India has aroused the disappointment and criticism of other democratic countries: its continuing to trade with Russia. India’s excuse is that it is dependent on energy imports from Russia for over 80% of its power, which means, in practice, that it has to be able to import energy from Russia, as one of the major producers. There is also the issue of energy costs where India could not afford the prices currently being paid by the West for energy.

Nevertheless, the presence of electric cars that I spotted on India’s streets are surely a sign of the future: a modern, technological, economic superpower, that will leave revanchist powers like Putin’s Russia behind before too long.  It is up to use to ensure she becomes a firm ally of the West.

Steve Baker: Wanted – a politically and economically viable path to low emissions

23 Feb

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

No serious person doubts that CO2 is a greenhouse gas or that human emissions of it have contributed to our changing climate. Our legal target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 is water under the bridge, nodded through without a division in parliament despite the scale of the implied changes to all our lives.

I admit I will miss petrol engines, especially in motorcycles, but I have no in-principle objection to Net Zero – other than that there has never been a democratic choice about a policy which means, as our Chief Scientist, Patrick Vallance, wrote in the Guardian, “transformation is required at every level of society”.

My objections are practical questions about how we get there – questions usually evaded by turning back to what we ought to do and why, or by doubling down on misinformation. That can’t go on because socially, economically and politically-unviable policies will not survive contact with the public.

Our current energy crisis is substantially a result of the emissions reduction policies of previous governments, particularly Tony Blair’s. Blair changed course away from the gas and nuclear path established by Conservative governments, which had reduced prices while cleaning up electricity generation and domestic heating. Blair’s renewables drive, which was maintained by all subsequent administrations, has left the UK critically exposed to the regional price of gas, because it is natural gas alone which ultimately guarantees security of supply for the UK electricity network.

It’s rational to have a climate policy, but our climate policies aren’t rational. Our acute crisis is a result of chronic, long-term strategic extremism in energy and climate policy. Policy which has been naïve about geopolitical realities, too inflexible, too dogmatic, too hasty and far too expensive.

Just as with our Covid response, the root of our problems is a failure to conduct robust cost–benefit analysis while focussing too narrowly on a particular problem.

Economists can value the harm done to human welfare by emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide – the Social Cost of Carbon. Estimates vary, but most think it is somewhere between £10 and £40. So if reducing emissions by a tonne costs over £40, we are probably doing more harm to human welfare than the climate change we are trying to prevent.

That is, above £40 per tonne the cure is worse than the disease. Worryingly, nearly all our climate policies are significantly more expensive than the social cost of carbon. Onshore wind costs over £100 per tonne and offshore over £200. Rooftop solar can cost over £1000 per tonne.

In 2009, the then government stopped using Social Cost of Carbon, and switched to what is a called a “Target Consistent” value, which is the price that will have to be paid to meet the target. That is, government stopped considering the overall welfare of the population, focussing instead on meeting the targets.

That change is even more important now we have a Net Zero target. By neglecting the already strained budgets of British households and by loading the public with more and more ambitious targets – for renewables, and heat pumps, for EVs, you name it – ministers have put climate policies on a collision course with socio-political reality.

We are seeing the first signs of public resistance now, and the situation will not improve on our present course. A rational policy for reducing emissions must deal with runaway cost problems, growing concerns about security of electricity supply and pressure on business competitiveness.

The cost to consumers of the renewables drive now stands at around £14 billion a year, around £500 per household. Most of that is subsidies, but the cost of dealing with the intermittency of wind and solar is also rising alarmingly. Despite that vast expenditure, once one sets aside incorrect claims which could amount to misinformation, hopes that renewables would become significantly cheaper have been disappointed. The industry claims their capital and operating costs are falling, but their financial accounts tell a different story. And there is a large queue of renewables operators with rights to extraordinary, index-linked levels of subsidy.

On our current path, there is no scenario in which energy prices return to normal in the next decade. It’s anyone’s guess when this unsustainable position will end but end it must. In the short term, we must cut the multi-billion pound cost of green levies, and admit they have not succeeded and bring these programmes to an end.

We will also need a different medium and longer term approach, reducing emissions but being realistic about what can be engineered at reasonable cost to the British people. We need to think a little less about the targets, and much more about what people can afford.

That leads us to a strategic gas-to-nuclear policy, not all that different from the sound Conservative energy policies inherited by Tony Blair and trashed. Government must allow people to go on using their gas boilers for longer, perhaps mixing in hydrogen, and not force the adoption of heat pumps. The drive to EVs should be relaxed: Government is demanding too much too quickly.

Ministers should restore confidence in North Sea oil and gas exploration to increase domestic supply of these fuels. And it is time to get on with using shale gas. Thanks to outrageous misinformation, the public are concerned about fracking, but the evidence shows it is a technique which can be safely used.

Natural gas is an excellent and a clean fuel. It can give us time to start a major rebuild of nuclear electricity generation. There are real signs that advanced modular reactors are the answer to the production of high-grade industrial heat, one of the hardest areas to decarbonise without pricing our manufacturers out of the international markets.

In the future, there may even be nuclear fusion, but banking on it would be a huge gamble. We will need to maintain a sophisticated and capable society if we are to overcome that technology’s known difficulties, and that means keeping energy costs low today.

The quickest win for the public and the government would be to encourage the construction of a new generation of gas-fired power stations. These would have much higher efficiencies than the existing fleet, which is mostly rather old, and could reduce wholesale electricity prices by as much as a third.

This gas-to-nuclear policy is a sound, balanced approach to emissions reductions. It doesn’t rule out anything – there can still be voluntary adoption of heat pumps and EVs – but it allows the public much more freedom to decide what works for them and how fast they can afford to decarbonise.

That is rational. That is Conservative. And it would work.

Sanjoy Sen: Our current energy problems have been a long time in the making. It’s time for a rethink.

16 Feb

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.

Energy is complex. Policymakers constantly wrestle with a trilemma of how to keep prices low, reduce emissions and maintain security of supply. All whilst demand soars (rising population, improved living standards) and new challenges emerge (electric vehicles, environmental legislation). It’s never going to be perfect.

But when the Chancellor has to sub you two hundred quid to keep the lights on, it might be time for a bit of a re-think. Our current energy problems have been a long time in the making and clearly can’t be fixed overnight.

But we do need to start by recognising what is and isn’t working. And coming up with some alternatives, both short- and long-term. The public needs this urgently – and our electoral fortunes depend on it.

Keeping prices low

By 2017, the concept of a price cap had morphed from Milibandian Marxist madness into sound conservatism – and my concern was that we weren’t levelling with the public. Generating energy and distributing it to every single home is an expensive business. Yet we were determined to keep daily utility costs cheaper than a take-out coffee – even whilst factoring in green levies.

The first consequence of promising to drive prices ever downwards was that there could never be a price point which the public would consider acceptable. Meanwhile, attempts to introduce apparent competition ended predictably: the numerous defunct businesses weren’t increasing our energy supply, they were simply buying others’ output and selling it on. Any market shock was always going to leave them exposed. And the price cap that drove them out of business is now meaningless to voters.

Tackling emissions

The most cost-effective means of delivering the low carbon power needed to meet Net Zero remains large-scale nuclear. (In fact, it’s also the best option even if you don’t much fancy Net Zero, as it delivers big, steady outputs without dependence on imported gas.) Sadly, the much-delayed, over-budget Hinkley Point C is fast becoming a textbook example of how not deliver it. The technology remains unsurprisingly problematic and its delivery lies in the hands of France and China, countries with whom we now enjoy dismal relations.

And as nuclear has faltered, our dependence on alternatives has increased. Renewables clearly have a vital role to play and it is encouraging that the UK is world number one in offshore wind capacity with more to follow. But we need to reflect on whether such heavy reliance on intermittent sources is the most cost-effective and reliable solution, especially when energy storage and the hydrogen economy are still under development.

Security of supply

As I noted after COP26, Narendra Modi recognises the consequences for India of ditching cheap, domestic energy: unemployment and rising prices that disproportionately hit the poorest. Plus the political ramifications of over-dependence on imports. Would that EU leaders felt the same. Proudly shuttering their own generating capacity, their citizens’ energy supply has never been more precarious. Germany is conspicuously silent with Vladimir Putin’s hands on the NordStream gas taps as he surveys Ukraine.

Here in the UK, we might have been in a stronger position thanks to our domestic assets. But we needed to back the giant Cambo North Sea development when it came under fire. And closure of the Rough gas storage facility eliminated our ability to buffer against market spikes.

So, where next?

New policies require a change of mindset. The public have always prioritised the cost of living and job creation – even more so following recent price shocks and Covid. We need to get back to those priorities. And we need to remember where our support now is: banning a Cumbrian coal mine doesn’t gain us much in north London but approving it is likely to go down very well locally.

In the short term, we need to start backing domestic energy production again. The North Sea may be past its peak but viable reserves remain. Options for gas storage re-instatement should also be investigated. Critically, potential investors need to be reassured that the offshore sector enjoys unswerving government support. Far from a political liability, there is much to be gained here, especially with an SNP administration dependent upon Green support.

Longer term, we need to get big nuclear back on track quickly via a range of partners. Plans were shelved in Cumbria, Gloucestershire and Wales in 2019 but interest remains strong if government support exists – it’s time to get after these urgently. (But this time, let’s use some proven technology, please.) And looking further ahead, we need to keep backing Rolls-Royce in their development of Small Modular Reactors. If we’re going to do this, it’s going to need continued support, not a loss of heart if the first one doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

Just as we tackle our current problems, new ones will inevitably emerge. China dominates the battery supply chain, an increasing concern as transport becomes electrified. We already need to start thinking about sourcing domestic supplies (Cornish lithium) and the recycling of spent batteries to hedge against future supply issues. Energy policy doesn’t get any easier but we do need to keep re-assessing – and changing tack where necessary.

Number 10’s climate conference for kids should be the last

26 Oct

Yesterday I had to do a double take when a press release landed in my inbox, titled the “Children’s climate press conference”. It alerted members of the media to the fact that Boris Johnson would be hosting a conference for children aged eight to 12-years-old on the Government’s eco strategy.

Shortly after the notification, the Prime Minister and Tanya Steele, Chief Executive of the WWF UK, were filmed in Downing Street’s press briefing room, speaking to this young audience. There, in highly technical terms, Johnson levelled with his listeners about the state of the climate crisis, warning that COP26 was going to be “very very tough”, and that he was “very worried, because it might go wrong”, before inviting them to ask questions.

What are you doing to reduce plastic usage?” asked one youngster. “Why aren’t electric cars cleaner, cheaper and easier to use?” asked another. And then there was the more direct instruction: “I would like you to incentivise industries to be eco-friendly in the materials they use.” All of which definitely sound like the natural questions of young children.

The fashionable view on the Kids Climate Press Conference is, of course, that it’s fantastic that the next generation is so clued up on the environment, as well as utterly endearing. Only days earlier children in Scotland were filmed delivering messages for world leaders about climate change ahead of COP26, in what was presumably meant to leave viewers feeling deeply inspired. But I felt far from this when one girl said she was “really scared about the future.”

It’s obvious – though perhaps it needs repeating to leaders – that children can be alarmed by a great number of things, so telling them the planet is going to explode hardly seems the best idea. Yesterday Steele spoke of there being an “emergency”, but what is a child meant to do with this information, as well as their Prime Minister telling them he’s “very worried”? It is frightening and no doubt gives many nightmares.

Maintaining that children should be left out of the debate is not to diminish the importance of going green, incidentally, but to say that it’s adults’ job to manage the big stuff. What life experience could a child possibly have to know about how best to tackle carbon emissions? Moreover, we have a duty to protect kids as from worrying things. This is a fact you would expect to have more resonance after a year in which they watched society shut down due to a novel virus.

Ultimately, the last few years have seen the young used – by politicians and activists – to sell climate change policies (as well as staying in the EU). The insinuation is that any voter who worries about going green doesn’t care about children’s futures. Yet what’s especially grating is how selective politicians are in deciding what affects a child’s life – as long as it fits into their wider agenda.

Would the Government ever, for instance, have had a Children’s Housing Conference – where they were grilled on where eight to 12 year-olds will live one day? Of course not. Or one where they discuss how future generations will cope with the pandemic bill? We’ll be waiting…

The “Children’s conference” speaks of a deeper complacency within the Conservative Party, whose launch towards Net Zero is receiving very little in the way of Opposition (it is not too far a stretch to suggest the kids yesterday were more effective than Starmer et al).

But it would be much better for politicians to engage with those most affected by the green revolution. In my local area that tends to be tradesmen who are struggling with the transition to electric cars, as a result as how much upgrading their vehicles costs, as well as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. Can the Government handle some adults in the room?

Mark Jenkinson: Electric cars have challenges, but these are not insurmountable. We should be optimistic about their potential.

20 Aug

Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.

I am a proud user of an electric car and a passionate advocate for the mass take-up of electric vehicles (EVs) – so much so that I recently became an EV champion for the Conservative Environment Network.

There has, however, recently been a lot more attention in the media on the negatives of EVs than the positives. I’m the first to say that more needs to be done to make them an affordable and practical choice for my constituents, but we can’t forget how much progress we are already making or lose sight of this technology’s huge potential.

The reason why I’m so supportive of EVs is because they can offer huge benefits to our health by reducing air and noise pollution, particularly in congested towns and cities. They can benefit our wallets via cheaper fuel and maintenance costs, and they are critical for net zero given transport is the highest emitting sector. Car companies like Tesla have also shown that EVs can be high-performance vehicles and provide a great driving experience.

We’re near the start of this transition, though, so there are still issues to resolve. The main ones are currently infrastructure, affordability and sustainability.

The UK has recently reached a milestone of 25,000 public chargers across the country, expanding the network by 220 per cent between 2016 and 2020. Earlier this year, the number of electric vehicle charge point sites surpassed the number of petrol stations for the first time.

This is of course great news for EV users like myself, but we need to go further and faster in order to provide the charging infrastructure for the expected increase in EVs on our roads in the years ahead. The lack of charge points then understandably leads to some people having range anxiety, despite the average EV having a range of 193 miles.

I was pleased to see the recent commitment from government to mandate the installation of charge points for all new houses and offices, but we won’t see the results of this for several years and it still leaves the on-street public network wanting.

That’s why I’ve been campaigning for businesses in my constituency of Workington to take advantage of government funding and install charge points at places of work. I’m also calling on ministers to make sure we have sufficient low-carbon electricity generation and resilient power grids for when people want to charge up.

Coming in at number three on the list of reasons why people are hesitant to buy an EV is the cost. We’ve seen an incredible fall in the cost of lithium-ion batteries in recent years – down 97 per cent in three decades – but at the moment, the upfront cost of a new electric car is still more expensive than a new petrol or diesel car, and the second-hand market is in its infancy.

This prices out a lot of people, particularly lower income families. That’s why government policies like the plug-in car grant to help people with the upfront cost, and company car tax breaks to create more fleet vehicles for the second hand market, are so important.

The upfront cost comparison doesn’t, however, take into account the lower fuel and maintenance costs of an EV or the longer lifespan that comes with a battery-powered car. Costs will also come down over time, as they do with most technologies as they scale up, particularly since the car industry is embracing EVs.

They can see that the market is moving towards electric – with both the US and the EU recently setting targets for electric vehicle uptake. Almost every week there are new voluntary commitments from car companies to expand their selection of electric models – Alfa Romeo, Scoda and Citroen to name a few. As manufacturers expand their selection of EVs there will be an expansion of the second-hand car market, which will be key to making EVs affordable for everyone.

Let’s also not forget that it’s demand from consumers that is driving this innovation. Ten percent of car sales in the UK are now electric and this is only going to continue as we near 2030. This will increase exponentially if we address the challenges that are still holding back the general public.

Beyond the immediate challenges of EV take up, there is the important matter of battery sustainability. Once an electric battery reaches the end of its life it can easily become a source of pollution.

They contain metals like cobalt and nickel, which are in short supply and could be reused if more and better recycling facilities were available. With more recycling plants we could harness this supply, reducing our dependence on importing resources and boosting our economy at the same time.

The recent media pieces make some valid points and raise some important challenges that the government needs to address. But the challenges are not insurmountable and we must not temper our ambition. By putting fairness at the heart of its policies, government can make electric cars a realistic option for every family and business.

Voters are suspicious of electric cars because politicians let them down over diesel ones. It’s not just a question of price.

18 Aug

As most people know by now, a large part of the Government’s plans for Net Zero involves convincing the nation to drive electric cars. The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 – so the consumer doesn’t actually have much choice in the matter.

That being said, the Government is having a number of issues selling its vision to voters around the country. None of this was helped over the last two weeks when Allegra Stratton, the spokesperson for COP26, revealed to Times Radio that she drove – shock, horror! – a third-hand diesel Volkswagen Golf.

Soon after Alok Sharma, President of COP26, was asked what he drove – to which he also answered diesel. Despite his assurance that he does not “drive it very much”, this has not impressed the electric car lobby, nor those wondering why they should buy electric if COP26’s most famous faces aren’t on board.

As COP26 draws closer, the Government will have to get better at promoting electric cars, as well as countering objections to them. The most obvious worry consumers have is the expense. Buying a car isn’t cheap, after all, so people will feel anxious about having to switch (especially when there’s been so much talk about people having to replace their gas boilers).

Then there’s the charging issue, which Stratton hit upon in her interview. She said she needed a diesel vehicle to visit elderly relatives “200, 250 miles away”… sometimes with small children in the car. “They’re all journeys that I think would be at least one quite long stop to charge”, were her words – sentiment that many people will relate to.

One underrated concern in all this is whether electric cars are another government fad, as was the case with diesel in 2001. Many will remember the “dash for diesel” in this period, during which Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor, introduced a new system of tax for petrol-powered cars, in the name of environmentalism, and slashed duty on diesel and reduced company car taxes on this type of vehicle

It led to a four-fold increase in the number of diesels, which has since been associated with thousands of premature deaths a year. Confidential Treasury files have since shown that Tony Blair’s government was aware of the damage these cars do to air quality – yet pressed ahead, mainly because the optics would look bad (through penalising diesel drivers).

At the time the files were discovered, Edmund King, president of the AA, said “This will only heighten the sense of injustice felt by millions of people who bought their diesel cars in good faith”. And it’s this sentiment that takes us back to electric cars. A lot is being asked of the consumer, so they need reassurances that electric cars are here to stay.

As James Frayne, who writes for ConservativeHome and has spent a long time researching public attitudes to Net Zero, tells me: “Cars are integral to most workers’ daily lives and they’re expensive to buy and run. People therefore really pay attention to political comment on cars and mistakes have consequences. Politicians’ u-turn on diesels is seared into the public memory and undermined confidence that Governments will see Net Zero policies through.”

So the Government needs to sell electric cars – and their longevity too. 

Craig Mackinlay: The Government is fooling itself if it thinks it can go down the Net Zero path without electoral damage

16 Jul

Craig Mackinlay MP is the MP for South Thanet.

The Government has launched its “greenprint” Transport Decarbonisation plan and adds to what has been trailed before with an extension of the ICE ban to new heavy goods vehicles by 2040, the decarbonisation of public transport and the goal of net zero aviation by 2050.

The ambition to ban the sale of traditional petrol and diesel cars by 2030 remains but there’s no detail as to how the small matter of the £34 billion currently levied on ICE vehicle users will be filled. This is the biggest and most costly undertaking of the British state in history and a strange throwback to the command and control regimes of old – when producing a definitive figure for the annual number of tractors to be built and so many tonnes of grain was all the rage.

We’re yet to hear more as to how the banning of domestic gas boilers will be achieved. Make no mistake, this requires a radical transformation of every part of the economy and our freedoms. Yet no one questions the enormity or cost of the project, and there are no answers to the obvious question – who pays?

Surely we cannot simply be obliged to pay any cost, however high and however painful? Other ambitions in the document, particularly regarding heavy goods vehicles have already been derided by The Road Haulage Association “So this is blue-sky aspiration ahead of real-life reality”. Quite.

While there is no draft legislation on the table to enforce these bans, just warm words, ambitions and glossy documents, there’ll doubtless be more to come as the Government plays a game of Top Trumps with international partners at COP26 this October.

The only estimates available for the cost of Net Zero come from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which is supposed to provide rigorous, independent advice to parliament – and yet its output always recommends further and faster.

The CCC is a significant player in the political debate around Net Zero, often explicitly directing Government policy, while being totally unelected and unaccountable. Mainstream media regurgitates its words sagely with little space offered to those who question its assumptions.

More recently, it has come up with a new estimate for the cost of Net Zero that details £1.4 trillion of capital spending that will be required to meet it. The committee was keen not to publicise this mind-boggling number (over half of UK annual GDP or 35 times the annual defence budget for context), and so discounted it with a range of speculative benefits that may or may not materialise.

The £1.4 trillion figure has finally been brought to public attention after the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) recycled the CCC figures for its fiscal risks report. The revelation that households are each facing a £50,000 bill over the next 30 years has caused, rightly, an awakening in the press. I am worried that the true cost could be much higher still.

The shift to retro-fitted air source heat pumps, additional insulation and larger radiators to make up for their poor heat output brings with it huge cost and significant risks. An independent report put the cost of decarbonising the UK’s social housing sector alone at £103 billion, or £20,000 per household. If such costs are replicated across the entire housing stock, we are looking north of £500 billion just for residential decarbonisation.

There’s no obvious technology to elegantly replace the gas boiler and I’m yet to find a constituent who assented to pay out £20,000 just to be both colder and poorer.

The pain doesn’t stop there. The use of electric cars, which are much more expensive than their ICE equivalents and have obvious limitations of range and charging, are made more expensive if electricity prices rise to accommodate huge demand requirements and upscaling of additional offshore wind, or expanded reliance on interconnectors from the continent supplying coal produced electricity. The taxation black hole will doubtless be filled by new taxes or hairbrained road charging schemes.

There is little government planning to provide the millions of charging points, no thought as to the security or availability of supply of rare metals often mined under unspeakable conditions of human misery to make the batteries and even less thought as to the true CO2 cost of ore extraction, manufacture of the new cars, new batteries nor the nationwide upgrade to the electricity grid to supply them.

The batteries are largely unrecyclable without huge energy input and use of toxic solvents to break down the near impenetrable resins. The safety of these batteries, that can burn uncontrollably releasing a variety of noxious substances, has not been fully investigated and yet the prospect is for many square miles of grid level batteries to smooth notoriously unreliable renewable electricity supply.

This dash for electric cars has also perversely condemned the country, and particularly our congested cities, to more particulate pollution, not less. No engine manufacturer will invest further in the design and production of a better internal combustion engine offering enhanced power, better consumption, cleaner-burning and lower particulates.

The 2019 engine is as good as it’s ever going to get, which is a shame, as the 2030 engine would have been so much better across all measures. Natural market-driven technological improvements have been stopped for reasons that nobody can quantify, explain or justify.

As ever, it will be the poor who suffer most from these elite delusions. Fuel poverty, the reality of heat or eat”, is the dilemma we are going to put them in, and yet there is somehow an overwhelming Westminster consensus that this is the right thing to do. The lack of almost any interest in the cost of these policies to ordinary people is palpable.

The Government is fooling itself if it thinks we can go down the Net Zero path without electoral damage. We will look, quite rightly, like the privileged few taking the poor back to the lifestyles of the early 20th century. The optics of jetting from one international climate conference to the next to tell other people they should not be flying, driving and eating meat, is not one that will be sustainable when these policies really start to bite.

The growth economies of China, India and Indonesia alone have more coal powered plants planned over the next ten years than the entire output of the current US electrical grid. The current UK output of global CO2, no more than a rounding error in the scheme of things at a mere one per cent, will be reduced to ½ per cent as coal powered growth proliferates globally.

I was never Theresa May’s greatest fan politically, but I’ll conclude with a statement she made on January 11 2018: “In our election manifesto last year we made an important pledge: to make ours the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it.”

I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. There is much to be done in protecting habitats and our oceans and weaning the planet off of the scourge of plastic waste. These ambitions are achievable and rooted in common sense while this path to Net Zero is muddled, costly and impractical.

We should pause for breath, inject some rational thinking and consider the alternatives before it’s too late. I am actively discussing these issues with colleagues as we simply cannot watch a financial, societal and political disaster unfold before us.