Britain as an island off the mainland of Europe potentially has greater capacity for production of renewable energy than almost the whole of the rest of Europe put together, mainly from onshore and offshore wind, wave and tidal power, and Scottish hydropower. Yet UK electricity production from renewable energy, though it has increased in the last decade, is still very low and indeed still one of the lowest in the EU. This is despite the mandatory EU requirement that Britain must generate at least 15% of its primary energy use from renewables by 2020 (whilst most other EU countries are obliged to meet a 20% target) which means that, since renewables make little contribution to transport or space heating, UK use of renewables for electricity production needs to rise to some 35% by 2020. It is now about 8%, and if Cameron and Paterson have anything to do with it, that small figure may even begin to fall now. But apart from such shockingly benighted foolishness in throwing away such a potentially world-beating British opportunity for our energy future, there is another darker side to this folly.
As North Sea oil and gas production has now dramatically fallen in recent years, the UK is now heavily dependent on gas imports. This has bent UK foreign policy towards placating, even courting, some of the world’s nastiest regimes. The UK has been wooing Azerbaijan, which has an appalling human rights record, because of the huge gas reserves in the giant Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea. Because BP and Sonatrach import gas from Algeria and sell it to the UK power companies, UK foreign policy is consistently supportive of President Bouteflika despite Algeria’s long history of human rights abuses. Charles Hendry, former energy minister and now Cameron’s Special envoy to the Caspian region, has said that the region is “one of the most exciting places in the world to do business”, which directly counters Cameron’s claim for tougher action against Putin over Ukraine. Britain is also courting Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in the same region for their extensive oil and gas fields as well as Qatar in the Middle East, all of which are known to be guilty of long-term human rights abuses. Claims by the Foreign Office that it always takes up human rights issues, and by the BP and other oil companies that they enhance local living standards, are just weasel words to cover greed for maximum profits.
The other impact of downplaying renewables is Osborne’s massive planned surge for fracking. This again is a mad rush to folly. The benefits will be short-lived (even more so than with the much greater repositories in the US), the disruption in our packed small island will be enormous (far greater than in the US), and the pressure on water supplies and the risk of environmental pollution significantly high. Who wants fracking and courting human rights monsters as the price of UK energy policy when we are sitting on the biggest positive alternative energy bonanza you could ever wish for? It should be made an election issue.