As I write this, millions on Britons are voting in the UK General Election. Final opinion polls have placed the two biggest parties – the Conservatives, who have been in power with the Liberal Democrats for the last five years, and Labour – neck and neck. But the biggest feature of this election has been the rise of smaller parties that has fractured the UK’s traditional two-party system.The result is thus difficult to call and I’m not going to try to do so here. But whatever the outcome, the new government will be faced with difficult decisions to make over the UK’s energy future – particularly with COP21 coming up in Paris later this year. Unfortunately, little detail had emerged from the campaigns as to what the various political parties plan in this area.
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There have been some broad outlines of policy. All of the main parties support meeting the existing climate change agreements, for example. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats would push that further with a commitment to decarbonise the electricity sector by 2030. The Conservatives, meanwhile, would end the public subsidy for onshore wind farms and allow local people to have a final say on wind farm applications – a sop to their traditional voters in Middle England who have a NIMBYish dislike for such installations.
In terms of coal, Labour have said they would create an Energy Security Board to plan and deliver a diverse energy mix, including both carbon capture and storage and clean coal. But that is the extent of coal’s role in the party manifestos. Add this however to the pledge signed by the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats earlier this year “to end the use of unabated coal for power generation” and it seems the death knell is being sounded for traditional coal-fired power generation in its spiritual homeland. Only the right-wing populists of the United Kingdom Independence Party remain open in their support of coal.
Yet energy bills have been a feature of the election with Ed Milliband, Labour’s leader and pretender to the keys of 10 Downing Street, promising a freeze on energy bills until 2017. This reflects the widespread disdain the British public has for energy firms – only bankers come in for more ire – but how Labour would balance this desire to reduce bills while building a low-carbon economy is far from clear. Meanwhile the Conservatives’ idealisation of fracking as some sort of panacea to the UK’s energy problems is only marginally better thought through.
And there is the rub. The UK energy industry needs more than acts of gross populism mixed with dreamy green ideals. But for too long, this is what has counted for energy policy here. It would be great if this election was to change that. But I’m not holding my breath.