On a clear day, looking out at the North Sea from the peripheries of Edinburgh, you can just about spot a brand-new wind farm on the horizon. The 200-turbine installation, amongst the largest in the world, will theoretically be able to supply electricity to ten million households at peak efficiency.
Ten million. Just think about that for a moment: that’s a third of all UK households. Even running at 30 percent efficiency, it could easily power every single home in Scotland. Of course, the changeable nature of wind means that this output will vary: some days, those 200 turbines will stand still. Nevertheless, not even Boris Johnson could deny the incredible potential of our offshore winds – so why has Liz Truss decided that the future instead lies in North Sea fossil fuels?
To be clear, Boris Johnson is in no way a climate saint – far from it. His climate-conscious persona came far too late in his political career and was often obstructed by his more traditionally conservative persuasions. COP 26, the international climate conference hosted in Glasgow last November, gave Johnson the perfect opportunity to flaunt some glamourous UK eco-projects on the world stage. This was Boris Johnson in his element: he trumpeted the virtues of our offshore wind power and ambitious emissions targets; he heckled the countries he felt weren’t pulling their weight; he even, perplexingly, found time in his opening speech to compare climate change to the plot of a James Bond movie.
He clearly wanted COP 26 to be a major turning point, perhaps more for the credit than the result. Any hopes that COP 26 would represent such a paradigm shift were, sadly, short-lived: already on life support following the watering down of key pledges, many important agreements were ultimately pronounced dead the moment Russia invaded Ukraine, plunging Europe into crisis.
This is the precarious scenario that Liz Truss has inherited. Having served as David Cameron’s Environment Secretary for two years, an optimist might hope that her government would demonstrate a renewed interest in climate change. Such an optimist would have to ignore that Truss oversaw huge cuts to water pollution monitoring during that period, allowing companies to pollute our waters with little-to-no consequences. Ultimately, Truss’ leadership campaign dispelled even the shadow of optimism: the strongest commitment she could muster was that she “supports” net zero by 2050. No further green pledges came, nor hints at how she might make net zero a reality.
Conversely, she has very vocally supported the rapid expansion of North Sea fossil fuel drilling, as well as the return of fracking – a global trend described as “delusional” by the UN Secretary General. Commentators told the BBC that Truss seems to show “strikingly little interest” in the possibility of a Green Britain. When she does mention renewable energy, it’s usually to complain about the blight of onshore wind and solar farms, both of which enjoy overwhelming public support according to the government’s own polling (only 7 percent of respondents were resistant to onshore solar developments, increasing to 12 percent for onshore wind).
Truss isn’t alone: the new Secretary of State for Business Jacob Rees-Mogg (a seasoned climate-sceptic) has unequivocally backed North Sea drilling, claiming we should extract “every last cubic inch of gas” before net zero. If you were hoping that the new Environment Secretary would be more interested in preserving the environment, you’ll be glad to hear that Mr Ranil Jayawardena has voted against climate legislation not once, not twice, but nineteen times. This crack duo of environmentally savvy ministers are reportedly planning to award over 130 licences for new North Sea fossil fuel ventures over the coming months.
Faced with the cost-of-living crisis as well as climate change, an increasingly common refrain is that we will all have to forgo some of the comforts of our consumption-heavy lives. What the commentators saying this tend to forget, given that most of them benefit from more-than-comfortable salaries, is that they are not the ones currently being forced to make these sacrifices. According to polling by Bray Leino, 70 percent of Britons are trying to be more careful about food waste this year, up 20 percent from last year – a behaviour that is disproportionately higher in lower-income households. Reducing food waste is obviously beneficial, but not at the cost of literally starving people into action. Given the chance, politicians could easily try to paint the struggles of the cost-of-living crisis as a necessary sacrifice that we all must make to protect the climate, whilst continuing to support their own interests as well as those of the fossil fuel industry.
This might all seem rather bleak, and that’s because it is: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, nightmarish for many reasons, effectively destroyed what little momentum was generated at COP 26. The BBC reported in June that the world is now using more fossil fuels than ever, and that the transition to green energy has essentially stalled. Our new PM is a former BP accountant, whose leadership campaign was largely funded by an ex-BP executive’s wife.
A peculiar ray of hope has emerged, however, with the accession of our new monarch: whatever your feelings on the monarchy, King Charles III is widely regarded to be one of the most prolific environmental activists alive. He is by no means ideal (he has made some deeply insensitive remarks portraying “African overpopulation” as a principal cause of climate change), but he currently seems to be the only person remotely close to Liz Truss with any care for the environment whatsoever. Unfortunately, given the monarch’s required neutrality, his role is very restricted: there can be no grand statements or open confrontations. Even so, he could be the much-needed alarm bell for a country that is sleepwalking towards catastrophe, dreaming fitfully of greener times.