General election campaigns are often dismissed as little more than exercises in generating hot air. But heat, or more accurately global warming, looks set to be one of the more important issues in the run-up to this year’s poll.

The issue hasn’t featured that prominently in past contests.

Even during the 2015 general election, ex-secretary of state for energy and climate change Ed Miliband famously prioritised fuel bills over saving the planet. This pattern continued during the 2017 campaign when an energy price cap was one of ex-prime minister Theresa May’s signature pledges.

The equation looks very different this year, with mounting public concern about climate change pushing the issue up the political agenda.

“It will be a priority and I can’t see how it won’t be, given how worried people are,” says Amy McConachie, head of external affairs at the Renewable Energy Association (REA).

Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), agrees: “With the exception of the Brexit Party, we are seeing political parties competing for the green vote, which we know is massively important for young voters.”

Probably for the first time in a UK general election campaign, the climate will be an issue that political parties will be competing over for votes, he says: “Whoever is elected is going to have to address renewables and net zero as a priority.”

Rob Jeffery, director of public affairs firm Field Consulting, is “cautiously optimistic” that room will be found for energy and climate change issues during the campaign.

He says: “Environment-related issues will be as high priority as they have ever been. With net zero, there’s been a degree of political one-upmanship. They are all trying to outbid one another to appeal to younger voters. Newly enfranchised voters who have been joining school protests will see this as a big priority and want to see a party that speaks to their world view.”

Another factor pushing the parties into action is the UK’s decision to host the UN climate change talks in Glasgow at the end of next year.

The timing of the event means that whichever party forms the next government will be under pressure to demonstrate that it is taking action on climate change issues. Black says: “Whoever is in government knows that all eyes will be turned on the UK and its claim to be a world leader.

“Unless they [the government] are on track with net zero targets by the end of the year, the environmental NGOs [non-governmental organisations] will be kicking up merry hell and it will be really embarrassing for whoever is in power.

“This manifesto process is really important because it’s a chance for each political party to put something ambitious on the table to demonstrate they are starting to deliver before that happens.”

Jeffery agrees: “Any new government will be ten months away from hosting the most significant international conference we have had in years and will want to talk credibly about these issues and show some global leadership.”

Questions of emphasis

While it’s true that there is consensus surrounding the need to act on climate change, individual party platforms will differ on how radical that needs to be.

The Liberal Democrats have set 2045 as the date when the UK should be aiming for decarbonisation. The Scottish Nationalist Party-led Scottish government has recently passed legislation setting the same date for the country to become a net zero zone, with an interim target of a 90 per cent cut in emissions on 1990 levels by 2040.

But it’s Labour that has been making the weather on climate change since the election date was announced last week. The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, put action on climate change at the heart of his campaign launch speech, warning that this year’s election is the “last chance” to tackle global warming.

This focus suits Labour’s desire to talk about anything other than its nuanced position on Brexit while highlighting an issue that will get out the youth vote, its staunchest set of supporters by age group.

To ram home the point, last weekend saw Labour pledge to invest £60 billion to improve the energy efficiency of “nearly all” of the UK’s 27 million homes by 2030.

A combination of improved insulation and renewable energy installations would cut the UK’s carbon emissions by just over a tenth, and average fuel bills by around £417 a year, the party claimed.

Chris Hewett, chief executive of the Solar Trade Association, says Labour’s ambition is “fantastic” but he is not yet sure how its plans will be implemented. “We’ve not yet seen evidence of specifics: rhetoric doesn’t mean much unless you have policies that hit the ground,” he says.

While Labour has promised to plaster solar panels on every social housing tenant’s home, it has been less forthcoming about how it will deal with the private renters and owner occupiers who live in the bulk of the nation’s housing stock.

Renationalisation

And the big fly in the ointment for the industry, as far as Labour is concerned, is the party’s threat to renationalise the utilities.

The party’s manifesto position is to bring back the networks, including National Grid, under public ownership. But party conference voted in September to go further, backing a motion calling for suppliers as well as networks to be renationalised.

Pointing to the party’s accompanying announcement to extend public ownership to new offshore wind farms, Jeffery expects Labour to go for broke on public ownership in this year’s election. “To differentiate themselves even more, I can see that envelope being pushed even further,” he says. But reigniting the ownership debate risks creating a distraction from the broader push to decarbonise the sector.

In its 2019 “election manifesto”, seen by Utility Week, SSE describes renationalisation of the grid as “highly disruptive” and warns it could “jeopardise further progress at a critical time in the transition to a low-carbon economy’.

The energy policy in-tray was already full before the election announcement, says Jeffery. “If there hadn’t been an election, we would have had the energy  white paper and the Treasury’s net zero review, all with a view on COP 26, which [would have] really focused minds.” To that list can be added the government’s National Infrastructure Strategy, which would have been published this week if the Budget had gone ahead.

The net zero review

Last weekend saw the Conservatives burnish their green credentials with the launch by the Treasury of its long-promised net zero review with the remit of ensuring that the right balance is struck between economic growth and cutting emissions.

The Tories can point to the government’s move to accept the Committee on Climate Change’s recommended 2050 net zero target. And Johnson personally signalled his commitment to this agenda by announcing that he would chair a Cabinet committee to oversee efforts to meet this goal.

But McConachie points out that so far there are no details how this committee will operate.

Hewett expresses concern that there is too much attention within government on the long-term goals rather than short-term action. He says: “The frustration with government policy is that there is a lot of focus on net zero 2050 targets but what happens in the next ten years is very important.”

One area where this is particularly pressing is the decarbonisation of heat. The last half of the 2017 parliament was meant to be about working out the best options in this area, which would then be implemented.

The timing of this year’s election means though that whoever is elected on 12 December will not only have to take some big decisions in this area but will also have to start to implement them.

“Things need to start rolling by 2023; it’s absolutely essential,” says Rob Dale, who heads the Hydrogen Connect agency.

The importance of tackling heat goes beyond traditional energy policy into housing, where progress on energy efficiency has been slow, says Black: “The government haven’t had a comprehensive national energy efficiency policy in place since the Green Deal.”

There was some progress in this respect with the publication last month of updated draft building regulations.

But the latest set of changes are “still not enough,” says Simon Markall, head of public affairs and engagement at Energy UK. He says the decision to scrap the introduction of the zero carbon homes standard in 2015 has held back efforts to improve the energy efficiency.

An analysis by the ECIU of new government energy efficiency statistics, published last week, shows that just 1 per cent of the homes completed last year met the zero emissions standard that would otherwise applied had it not been scrapped.

“We need to get serious. We need to start looking at new homes,” says Markall. And while the focus is shifting from electricity generation, there is still work to do.

The “absolute acid test” of the Conservatives’ commitment to decarbonisation will be whether the party drops its long-standing opposition to allowing onshore wind and solar power to compete in contract for difference auctions, says Hewett.

SSE’s manifesto backs this stance and calls for 40GW of offshore wind to be deployed by 2030, one-third more than the government’s existing target.

And given the highly volatile nature of UK politics, where local dynamics will often be crucial in determining how contests in individual constituencies pan out, another hung parliament can’t be ruled out at the end of this campaign.

Irrespective of whether this happens, McConachie is keen for the parties to resist the temptation to treat energy and climate change as a political football. “We need everybody to be working together on this. We need action and we need to get on with it. Whoever is in control needs to work across the benches,” she says.

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