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The new electric Leviathan

3 min read

Adam Bell, Director of Policy at Stonehaven and former Head of Energy Strategy at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, discusses the coming debate about how we get to net-zero

For all the fractious rhetoric of the general election campaign, both Labour and the Conservatives have agreed on one critical aspect of delivering net-zero electricity in Britain – that it will require the construction of enormous amounts of new infrastructure.

Labour has promised to decarbonise the grid by 2030, five years earlier than the Conservative pledge to decarbonise by 95 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035. Under Labour’s plans, gas plants will be kept in reserve for the ‘once in a decade’ winter in which a combination of flat wind and over-cast skies hampers the output of our renewable generation fleet. 

Decarbonising power by 2030 is very much a moonshot, one which will require pylons and generators to be built at a greater pace than any time since the 1950s, when the power system was centrally planned and run. Labour’s plans are very likely to require a step towards this world again.

Luckily for Labour, the Conservatives have spent the last fourteen years heading back to this world, seemingly in a fit of absent-mindedness. The majority of our generation capacity is selected by the government in some way, network planning is being centralised, and plans are in motion to specify exactly where new generation should go. Much of the institutional architecture Labour will need to deliver is already in place.

Belatedly, the Conservatives have realised that they never meant to do this. At a speech in April, outgoing energy secretary Claire Coutinho set out the branching path that now faces energy policy. One fork leads to a ‘net-zero Leviathan of central planning’ while the other to greater uncertainty but a stronger role for markets and consumers.

What is clear is that Labour’s 2030 pledge will require thefull weight of Leviathan. This will incur costs, although the gas saved by moving faster makes this potentially cheaper than going later. However, as the Conservatives in opposition construct a more market-friendly version of net-zero, we can expect all the new structures Labour will set up to deliver its target will come under considerable scrutiny.

"This points to the political fissure that awaits us in the next Parliament: not simply on whether we get to net-zero, but how we get there”

This points to the political fissure that awaits us in the next Parliament: not simply on whether we get to net-zero, but how we get there. The Conservatives will bill Labour as the party of top-down imposition, and bill themselves as the party of innovation and market-led consumer choice. 

This is foreshadowed in Rishi Sunak’s allegation in the leaders’ debate that Labour wants to force people to rip out their gas boilers and install heat pumps: the logic of decarbonisation means that at some point we’ll all have to give up gas; there’s an open question as to how this will happen.

To the environmentally minded, this is a far better debate to have than the vicious culture wars going on in America over whether the planet is burning or not. But to those who want to maintain a political consensus around a single technocratic route to net-zero, this will become increasingly challenging. 

This article was originally published in The Path To Net Zero supplement circulated alongside The House magazine. To find out more visit The Path To Net Zero hub.


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