How do the party manifestos compare on energy?

02 Jun 2017

Building a clean economy of the future is the most important think we can do for our children, our grandchildren, and future generations’ … Labour Manifesto, 2017

We will spend more on research and development, to turn brilliant discoveries into practical products to transform the world’s industries – such as the batteries that will power a new generation of clean, efficient, electric vehicles’. Tory Party Manifesto, 2017 
 
We will expand renewable energy, aiming to generate 60% of electricity from renewables by 2030, restoring government support for solar PV and onshore wind in appropriate locations (helping meet climate targets at least cost) and building more electricity interconnectors to underpin this higher reliance on renewables.’ Lib Dem Manifesto, 2017 

Replacing fracking, coal power stations, subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear with the clean green efficient renewable energy of the future, and investing in community owned energy.’ Green Party Manifesto, 2017 

'Renewable energy is a Scottish success story. We are determined to build on that success … Scotland has a wealth of onshore and offshore renewable energy potential which, if unlocked, can support thousands more jobs and further economic growth. '. SNP Manifesto, 2017 

All of the main UK parties have now published their election manifestos, in the run up to 8 June. There are significant commitments on energy and climate change policy: some of them are ambitious and are designed to accelerate the transition to clean energy, whereas others raise more questions than answers.  

So how do the different parties’ plans add up?  
 
A central plank of Labour’s energy policy commitment is re-nationalisation of parts of the energy industry and, in common with the Tories, the SNP and the Green Party, a cap on household energy prices. Labour’s plans for energy renationalization are puzzling. They are part of a broader ideological commitment public ownership that also includes water and railways (the Green Party makes a similar pledge). However, it is unclear why renationalization of energy networks would be a good use of public money (or borrowing), or what this move is seeking to achieve. 

Although public ownership is starting to come back at the local level, led by some Local Authorities, this is a bottom up phenomenon. The Labour plan to have a public company in every region seems un-necessarily top down, and runs counter to pledges to devolve power elsewhere in its manifesto. UKERC research shows that many Local Authorities are barely off the starting blocks in relation to energy strategies and preparedness. This is not because of a lack of political will – but due to a dearth of powers and funding so they can develop energy saving and local generation projects. So the key question to all parties is how they will devolve and strengthen such powers and budgets? 

The desire for price caps across the political spectrum is a major shift. Whilst these plans are deliberately political, they lead to questions about how such a cap will be implemented, how they will be targeted, and whether it will reduce incentives for investment in much needed clean energy technologies, smarter networks and low carbon heat. What is not often mentioned in the debate is that average household energy bills have fallen between 2008 and 2016, driven by changes in fuel prices and energy efficiency investments. This demonstrates that energy efficiency improvements are a far more sustainable, long-term strategy for tackling bills, especially for those on low incomes. The review of energy costs promised in the Conservative manifesto should take that into account as well as the potential for innovation to further reduce the costs of new energy technologies. 

To be fair, some parties also have ambitious plans for energy efficiency. The commitment by the Lib Dems to a Green Buildings Act and the restoration of the zero carbon standard for new homes are both welcome. The same goes for plans Labour and the Lib Dems to improve the energy efficiency of 4 million homes, though questions remain about how this will be achieved . And the Tory plans for an industrial energy efficiency scheme for large companies, alongside upgrading fuel poor homes to EPC Level C by 2030, are positive too. While they do not go far enough, they are a sign that the wealth of evidence about the potential for energy efficiency has filtered through to all main parties.  
 
The continuing commitment by all parties (except UKIP) to the Climate Change Act is very welcome. This is now more important after President Trump finally confirmed his administration’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement – a decision that has rightly been condemned by politicians, businesses and NGOs around the world. 

However, the Conservative manifesto is worryingly light on detail about how the UK will meet its targets, and makes no mention of the delayed Clean Growth Plan. Instead, there is a commitment to ‘focus on outcomes rather than the means by which we reach our objectives’. This is at odds with the continuing opposition to onshore wind, the cheapest low carbon generation technology available. On the more positive side, however, is an enthusiastic wish for the UK ‘to lead the world in electric vehicle technology’, with some resources to match. It remains to be seen whether the commitments that the Conservatives made in government will be enough to realise this ambition. 

The Lib Dems have gone further, and are proposing introducing a Zero Carbon Britain Act. This sounds impressive and dynamic - but it is, in fact, merely reinventing the wheel. By amending the 2008 Climate Change Act to include tougher targets, which has already been done once, we’d get the same result without the need to create a new piece of legislation. 

Other parties are more specific. For Labour and the Lib Dems, the magic numbers are 60% by 2030. The detail is important here. Whereas Labour wants a target of 60% of energy (which I understand means electricity and heat) from low carbon sources, the Lib Dem target is for 60% of electricity from renewables by the same date. I’ve compared both pledges to our most recent modelled scenarios which meet all carbon budgets and the 2050 target in the Climate Change Act. None of them meet the Labour and Lib Dem goals for 2030, suggesting the need for a much more ambitious and rapid policy push over the next decade if these more specific targets are to be met. 
 
On fracking, Labour, in common with the Lib Dems and the Greens, is against. The Tories cite the US shale ‘revolution’ and the fact that ‘shale is cleaner than coal’, as justification for pursuing a UK shale industry. Labour is against because it says fracking ‘locks us into’ an energy future centred on fossil fuels, while the Lib Dems cite 'its adverse impact on climate change, the energy mix, and the local environment’. Research by UKERC has emphasised that there are large uncertainties about fracking in the UK, including about its commercial viability. In the absence of significant exploratory drilling, that remains the case today. 

Ultimately, fracking is just another way of producing gas. Our report on the future of gas in the UK, published last year, showed that gas demand will need to decline from now on. This is especially the case if CCS technologies are not successfully commercialised. Just like conventional gas from the North Sea or Norway, shale gas will need to be developed in the context of our climate change targets. Whether local communities can be persuaded or not to support fracking, it is very unclear whether the Conservative plan to ‘develop the shale industry in Britain’ will yield results. Furthermore, the opportunities for shale (or any other source of gas) to reduce emissions by replacing coal are rapidly running out of road.

The implications of Brexit for UK-EU energy policy are barely considered in the manifestos, although there is an understanding in some of them of the importance of not losing our position as a global leader and influencer on climate change, and of the dangers of isolation. Like many policy domains, the shadow of the Brexit negotiations will loom large over energy policy during the coming months. The big risk is that this will take political attention away from much needed action to reduce emissions – and to do so whilst ensuring that the costs and benefits of the energy transition are widely shared.