Way back in the mid-1960s, when I was an engineering apprentice, I had the good fortune to work for a time in my employer’s planning department. It was when planning methods developed by the US military were being introduced into our construction industry for more peaceable purposes.
These methods are essentially ways of navigating through complex projects that involve activities, some of which can occur in parallel while others need to be sequential, (i.e., they depend on the completion of previous activities); all having time and resource implications. The intention, of course, is to deliver projects on time and on budget. It’s this careful process that I’m reminded of when I’m told of a plan.
Definitely not a plan
Last week, the government unveiled Powering Up Britain. It was, in the terms I describe above, definitely not a plan. It was, however, presented as such, and was delivered on what was originally to be called Green Day but, on sober reflection, was re-badged Energy Security Day.
The unveiling came at the end of March for a reason. The timing was the direct consequence of a High Court ruling last July, in a case successfully brought against the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy by Friends of the Earth, Client Earth and the Good Law Project. Their accusation was that the secretary of state had failed in his duty under the Climate Change Act (2008).
This Act was introduced in the latter part of the last Labour government, and, as amended in 2019, it obliges the government to set out and report on detailed plans and policies that demonstrate how its net zero strategy will be achieved. The High Court determined that this had not been done and it ruled that the government make good on its legal obligation within nine months.
A lost decade
Progress under the Climate Change Act in the early years of the Conservative-led coalition government was good. In fact, in 2011 a record 1.6 million homes had insulation added in a retrofit programme. Then came David Cameron’s decision in 2013 to “get rid of all the green crap“. What followed was a lost decade in which the number of homes retrofitted has never been more than a fraction of those upgraded in 2011.
That’s not to say that nothing has been achieved. As the government is always quick to point out, the UK’s territorial greenhouse gas emissions have reduced by roughly 50% since 1990. However, when we examine how that’s happened, we see that it’s down to three principal factors:
- The replacement of coal by gas in power generation. This started earlier, during the 1980s, and has resulted in the rapid depletion of our North Sea gas reserves. We are now dependent on imported gas for half of our needs.
- The impressive build-up of wind power that last year contributed a quarter of total UK electricity generation.
- The loss of much of our industrial capacity together with the energy it consumed and consequential emissions.
Other than by that last factor, little has happened on the demand side. This is exemplified by the modest reductions in emissions from buildings being outweighed by a relentless increase in the emissions from transport.
The 80/20 rule
I’m reminded of the Pareto Principle, sometimes called the 80/20 rule. This has it that in any endeavour, 80% of the intended outcomes can be accomplished with only 20% of the effort. However, achieving the remaining 20% requires 80% of the effort.
Seen in this context, the 50% reduction in UK emissions over the last three decades can be regarded as falling within the ‘little effort required’ part. The difficult part lies ahead, and the next ten years will be critical. Very many actions will need to be taken, some of which can proceed in parallel, others will only be possible if taken in the right order. All actions will have time and resource implications.
So I refer you to the beginning of the article: it is clear that we have the essential ingredients that point to the need for a plan.
Where we should have been years ago
Did we get a plan in last week’s Powering Up Britain report? We did not. What we got was mostly a re-statement of previously announced intentions. The report is peppered with sentences that start with the words “we will consult on…”.
If we look, as an example, to my own field, energy use in the built environment, we see statements such as, “[the government is] planning to consult by the end of this year on how to improve the energy efficiency of owner-occupied homes”.
Bear in mind that the 29 million homes we have in the UK account for 21% of our energy use, and that owner-occupied homes form 70% of that housing stock. Consider further that their households tend to use more energy than those in the rented sector. It will then be appreciated that this, and the many other instances of “we will consult…” amounts to ‘planning to have a plan’ and places us nowhere near where we should have been years ago.
Carbon capture and storage
It is evident that the government realises that its strategy would fall short without the inclusion of some ‘farsighted’ thinking.
This comes in the form of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The technology of carbon capture from power station chimneys has been demonstrated, but at a significant additional cost to the electricity produced. And carbon storage in depleted oil and gas wells is like the technique, already used by the oil industry, of injecting carbon dioxide into wells to extract the last few barrels.
But the idea that we could use CCS at the scale needed has yet to be demonstrated successfully anywhere in the world, even after decades of trying.
Why the reluctance?
So, why the lost decade? And why does this government seem so reluctant to plan?
My conjecture is that this is the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. She instilled into the Conservative mind the philosophy of small government, and the notion that the market knows best. From this attitude stems the view that there should be minimal restrictions on enterprising free marketeers that, like white knights – in my imagination mounted on unicorns – would ride forth, seeking out market opportunities and, coincidentally, save the world.
The probability is that the government, this time in the persona of Grant Shapps, secretary of state for energy security and net zero, can expect a fresh invitation to attend the High Court, to again be told to get its act together.
Perhaps they’re banking on this not happening before they leave office.
(Note: This article is an expansion of Professor Corcoran’s letter to the Glossop Chronicle that appeared on 6 April 2023.)