Claire Perry: “Taking action on the environment is a massive win-win”
From boosting energy efficiency to cutting out coal, Claire Perry says the UK government is leading the world on clean growth. The self-confessed “greenie” tells Emilio Casalicchio why environmental politics “runs through the heart” of her Conservatism
On top of her day to day job trying to save the planet, Claire Perry is now a key player in the new Cold War. In the wake of the nerve agent attack in Salisbury this month, fears have risen about the cyber threat from Moscow and potential hacks to the UK energy grid and key power companies. Just days ago, the US accused Russia of cyber-attacks on its power sector and UK security services put our own industry on alert.
Perry – who returned to government as Energy and Clean Growth Minister after the snap general election last year – insists “we have to absolutely ensure we have no vulnerabilities”. She adds: “I think we are pretty confident in our security policies to date but it’s absolutely right that we have to keep appraising them and making sure we are aware of any potential danger.”
On the risk that Russia could cut off the gas it supplies to Britain, Perry says only a tiny fraction makes it to the UK and the overall supply would be unaffected without it. But she notes that despite the security concern, the option to take Russian gas helps to keep costs down for consumers. “We have always got to balance the security, the supply, the cost to consumers and getting the carbon down, so it’s a sort of triple test, if you like,” she explains.
As a former “greenie” who says she got into politics through local environmental initiatives, the Devizes MP sees herself as a perfect fit for the job.
“I have been passionate about this for a long time,” Perry enthuses. “There’s a sort of sense of stewardship that runs through the heart of why I’m a Conservative: things that we inherit we should improve and hand on in a better state to the next generation, whether that’s the environment or the economy.”
She cites statistics about air pollution around schools and her own experiences cycling to work in London as a motivation. “Sometimes if you’re cycling and you get a great breath of something you think ‘crikey’,” she says.
“I guess it just makes me want to work harder to try and sell the benefits of it. For too long we have thought if we want to take action on the environment somehow that’s bad for growth, it’s bad for our businesses. [But] it’s a massive win-win. Because the low carbon economy is growing so quickly in the UK and in the world and we can be part of that.”
She laughs off a question about David Cameron allegedly telling aides to “get rid of all the green crap” as a “scatological conversation” and a misunderstanding about the former Prime Minister’s drive to cut bills. But she launches a staunch defence of government schemes that promote “investing in the future” to curb the burning of coal and the pollution of the countryside. Moreover, she argues – against the grain of public opinion – that energy bills have in fact gone down over the past four years because the initiatives, although costly, have resulted in greater energy efficiency.
In terms of her own efficiency credentials, Perry scores somewhat low on the scale. She has committed to giving up plastic bags and disposable coffee cups but she ferries herself around in a diesel Mini, does not have a smart meter, has no solar panels, is not on a green energy tariff and washes clothes at 40°. On the other hand, she does have a well-insulated home with “really good” double glazing.
Despite a personal approach that would make Greenpeace activists snigger, Perry has big ideas when it comes to UK-wide policy. She already launched the ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance’ initiative with Canada in a bid to lead the world in ending the use of “unabated” coal power generation by 2025. But she reveals she has been urging colleagues to go further. “I would quite like us to have a coal free HMG where we actually don’t support coal mining activities,” she explains.
“It would mean not supporting coal projects through international trade – through any of our government activities.” She adds: “I haven’t persuaded all other ministers about that yet but that would be something where we could genuinely say ‘coal is too polluting a fossil fuel for us to be burning or supporting’… It’s very hard to see how coal could be included in the mix going forward.”
However, she stops short of calling for the MPs’ pension fund to divest from shares in the oil and gas industry, because many of those firms are “spending billions in funding the transition to green energy”.
A lofty goal to pull all government cash away from coal production around the globe sounds impressive. But there are calls back at home for the government to adopt more straightforward methods for saving the planet.
The Clean Growth Strategy unveiled last year aims to put the UK on course to meeting its target to cut emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. Bursting with more than 50 pledges to help boost renewable power production and increase energy efficiency, even the independent Committee on Climate Change was impressed.
But the watchdog said even more action was needed if emissions targets for 2027 and 2032 are to be met, including a firming up of vague policy plans and a raft of bold new proposals. Deeply proud of the strategy, Perry insists the government is only a few percent away from hitting the future targets – figures Labour disputes – as she argues: “For budgets 10 and 15 years out that’s pretty good.”
But she adds: “I totally accept the challenge and that is why we have to continue to push forward on all of this.” And for good measure, she notes: “I have been told that this is the most comprehensive set of policies and procedures any government has brought forward to decarbonise our economy.”
One proposal for meeting the targets was thrust into the limelight when four Commons select committees joined forces to condemn the government over its air quality plans. After ministers were rebuked by the courts for the third time for failing to produce an adequate strategy to tackle pollution, the Environmental Audit Committee, the Health Committee, the Transport Committee and the Environment Committee launched a call for action.
Their most eye-catching proposal was to bring forward the planned 2040 date to end the production of petrol and diesel cars. Norway, India, Ireland, and Israel have all announced bans in 2030, while the Netherlands has even said 2025. Perry insists the UK was a leader on the pledge and other nations tried to best it when they followed suit.
But in true Tory style, she makes a passionate business case for all environmental policy. “We have to think about the fact we have millions of people employed in the UK car industry,” she explains. “I don’t want to be making the last diesel engine in Europe on these shores, I want us to be leading the challenge. But sometimes you have to think really hard about your industrial base and where you want it to go and work with them.”
However, at the same time the government has been disappointing the renewables industry by restricting subsidies for solar and onshore wind. Investment in renewables plummeted by more than half in 2017 after the first drop since 2011 the year before. After rising solidly through most of the coalition years, critics naturally lay the blame at the door of David Cameron, who made the changes in 2015. Perry insists the numbers are “really lumpy” and will see an uptick once projects currently being negotiated or bid for at subsidy auctions are agreed.
When it comes to onshore wind, she says ministers are “looking carefully” at hopes to expand in parts of Scotland and Wales – but, she insists, because turbines are so controversial, that “no onshore wind should ever be imposed on a community”. She says new wind and solar auctions are in the pipeline, but she argues: “We are getting to subsidy free generation now for offshore and solar. So, I wouldn’t be expecting us to be investing subsidy in those that contracts [that] can be used to go after technologies that are further away from the market.” And she adds: “I’m told by major international investors – including Germany’s second biggest utility firm – that we are still one of the most attractive destinations in the world for renewable energy. Because we have a really good government framework and a really good government supply chain. So, I’m obviously interested in those numbers but I don’t think they reflect what’s actually happening over the long term.”
As with almost every government department, the immediate challenge for BEIS is how to make sure policy promises are delivered on while Brexit threatens to shake up the current order.
Despite being a Remain campaigner during the referendum and making waves for launching an astonishing attack on Brexit “jihadis” while on the backbenches, Perry insists quitting the bloc will not be a “hindrance” to Tory energy plans because the UK Climate Change Act trumps EU proposals.
She says there will be no chance of the UK lagging behind Brussels because the government objective is to “do as well as the current position” and already starts from a high point on CO2 output. “The reassuring thing is that our domestic ambitions are more stretching than the EU’s ambitions, so we are ahead of the game in terms of wanting to cut emissions,” she explains.
She evokes the “greenie” warrior of her early political life as she makes great strides to reassure doubters who fear a bonfire of regulation after Brexit: “I have been quite clear that we will do nothing in terms of the renegotiation process that reduces our ambition or reduces our desire to act collectively on this. Because one molecule of CO2 – it doesn’t matter where it comes from – we all suffer from it.”