What has emerged in the UK is a fast-moving, high-tech, corporate energy transition—but the old dream of a decentralised and democratic system lives onby Adam Tooze / December 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the UK there is now considerable euphoria around decarbonisation. This is, to say the least, a surprise. In the 19th century Britain led the world into the era of fossil fuels, and as recently as 10 years ago it lagged far behind in the energy transition compared to other large European countries. Way back in the 1970s, France had gone the whole hog for nuclear. Under Gerhard Schröder’s Red-Green government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Germany had pioneered solar and wind and ambitious energy efficiency standards for housing. As the 21st century began, Britain was still an island of coal surrounded by seas of oil and gas.
Yet today, the UK’s per capita CO2 emissions are almost 40 per cent lower than Germany’s, the country that “progressive” Britons almost reflexively assume does everything “better than us.” The UK is a world leader in offshore wind power, one of the most promising sources of renewable energy. The UK parliament was one of the first to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Labour Party went into the December election espousing a Green New Deal more radical than anything envisioned by the German Greens. And though the Labour conference resolution of zero emissions by 2030 may be unrealistic, the end of coal-fired power generation in the UK is in sight—years ahead of Germany.
Energy experts boast about the clear-headed design of Britain’s 2013 electricity market reform, which established a price floor for carbon and efficient auctions for renewable capacity. This contrasts with the chronic muddle in German energy policy. But such technocratic self-congratulation is at risk of underplaying accidents of geology and geography, the same ones that made the UK into a fossil fuel giant in the first place. They also underestimate the legacy of history—specifically, Britain’s painful economic and social restructuring in the 1980s and 90s. This weakened the established national interests that defended coal, and created an energy sector dominated by transnational corporations highly responsive to policy incentives and market signals. This has enabled some quick wins, even if its ability to facilitate the deep decarbonisation required ahead remains to be seen.
Old kings’ coal