September 7, 2022

Opinion: Truss could fix the cost of living crisis and the climate in one go

Put yourself in the shoes of our new prime minister, Liz Truss. You’re taking office during the worst cost of living crisis in decades, where households up and down the country face impossible bills, freezing homes and soaring inflation. The general consensus is that she’s got the worst in-tray since at least Thatcher.

And at the centre of this storm, that Truss yesterday pledged to “ride out” is energy. With already escalating gas prices last year, made worse by Europe’s complacent reliance on Putin for gas to heat our homes – fixing the energy crisis, which is also responsible for driving inflation across the whole economy, is the issue on which Truss’s leadership will succeed or fail. Why, then, if Truss is remotely serious about making things better for UK households, has she given this vital job to Jacob Rees-Mogg?

To fully understand this grave error, we need to cast our minds back to 2013. Rees-Mogg blamed “climate alarmism“ for high energy bills, which encouraged the then PM David Cameron to “cut the green crap” just weeks later. This so-called “green crap” was support for solar, wind and energy efficiency.

These measures are precisely the sorts of policies that bring bills down, and keep them low for good. UK renewable energy tends to get used nationally – as opposed to oil, 80 per cent of which from the UK’s North Sea gets exported. And making homes more energy efficient means we use – and crucially waste – less energy. It stops us paying for heat that simply disappears out the window, or through the roof. What’s through the roof right now is the price of gas, and our energy bills are £150 higher as a result of this climate-sceptic crusade by Rees-Mogg.

Looking at the situation we now face, the government’s own climate advisors, the Climate Change Committee, agree that the best way to keep bills low and tackle the climate crisis is to cut our energy demand, with measures like home insulation and heat pumps. This is something Rees-Mogg’s predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng backed, but was blocked by the previous chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

Right now, new renewable energy is a whopping nine times cheaper than gas. So rolling out wind and solar energy with gusto would make a real difference in keeping our bills – and carbon emissions – low. And to help fund these vital, common-sense fixes to this crisis, oil and gas companies’ grotesque wartime mega profits are there for the taking.

If the UK would just introduce a robust windfall tax – one without loopholes that encourage fossil fuel companies to keep digging up more oil and gas in the North Sea – this could raise an extra £6 billion to fund a nationwide programme for insulating our homes. Instead, the government’s obsession with digging up every last drop of UK oil and gas has seen climate-wrecking new projects like Jackdaw and Rosebank progress in recent months.

That brings us nicely to what our new business secretary sees as the solution. He’s argued for oil and gas companies’ profits to be protected and for “every last cubic inch of gas from the North Sea”. But because gas gets sold on global markets to the highest bidder, it makes no difference to our bills. This is something Rees-Mogg’s predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng, rightly stated, saying that: “Additional UK production won’t materially affect the wholesale market price…the long-term solution is obvious: gas is more expensive than renewable energy, so we need to move away from gas.”

This is something our COP26 President, Alok Sharma; Shell’s former top scientist, the boss of EON, and just today, the heads of the Climate Change Committee and National Infrastructure Commission all agree on.

When it comes to climate action, Rees-Mogg has previously called into question the impact of fossil fuel emissions on global warming. But yet again, his views have been shown up by the experts. The International Energy Agency has said we can have no new fossil fuels if we’re to have a hope of keeping global temperature rise within 1.5C – something that would have dire consequences for the whole world if not met. And the UN Secretary General has warned that fossil fuel companies have “humanity by the throat”.

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After a summer where the UK declared a national emergency, as temperatures reached 40C for the first time, and at this very moment where Pakistan is facing horrific floods as a result of global emissions it mostly isn’t responsible for, we need our cabinet minister in charge of energy to have a grip on these issues. Not to be hell-bent on making them worse.

Truss might also be wise to think of where the public are at. Rees-Mogg is a fracking evangelist. As the government rightly said only a few months ago : “Fracking causes earthquakes, is hated by local communities, would take five to ten years to kickstart, and won’t even lower the price.” And the public really like renewable energy – with the latest polling showing 77 per cent public support.

So why would she appoint an energy secretary so incredibly out of touch with the public mood?

We’re at a very unique moment where our sitting prime minister has the power to kill two birds with one stone by fixing the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis in one go. Truss could be the prime minister who starts to set us on the right track. The opportunity to make everyone more secure, to steady our economy and protect the planet seems too good to miss. The public support to act is there. The moment is now. But at a minimum we need an energy secretary who is not intent on taking us in the opposite direction.

Rebecca Newsom is head of politics for Greenpeace UK

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