In a few weeks’ time, the King will be giving the keynote address at the UN Climate Summit, COP28, urging heads of government from around the world to act decisively on the climate and nature crises. With this in mind, the King’s speech this week was an opportunity for the government to set out a clear vision for a greener future, for both people and planet. Instead, with one of the lightest legislative programmes in a decade, the government made King Charles read out a speech fundamentally at odds with his own environmental principles.
What was in the speech and why does it matterWhile the King’s speech did briefly mention the intention to offer record investment in renewables and improve grid connections, the focus of the energy announcements were on the continuation and expansion of oil and gas production.
The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill establishes an annual system for awarding licences to explore and plan for oil and gas development (primarily in the North Sea).
In practice, this changes very little. The government does not need new legislation to hold annual licensing rounds; they were, in fact, held annually until 2019, when they were paused by Boris Johnson’s government to ensure licences were in line with the six tests in the ‘climate compatibility checkpoint’. Unfortunately, three of these six tests were junked in the first few days of Liz Truss’s administration, and Rishi Sunak has chosen not to reinstate them.
Why does this matter? While this legislation is not necessary, it sends a very dangerous message about the UK’s commitment to its climate goals. New oil and gas developments put the goal of the Paris Agreement (to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5oC) at serious risk and the Climate Change Committee (CCC) explicitly confirmed in June of this year that the expansion of fossil fuel production is fundamentally not in line with the UK’s net zero commitments.
The King said the words “this bill will support future licensing of new oil and gas fields helping the country to transition to net zero by 2050”. The vain attempt to link the two is farcical, with no detail on how new oil and gas projects could possibly be made compatible with those net zero goals.
While we know that oil and gas will play a role in the transition to net zero, to pretend that this is being done for the sake of energy security and lowering consumer bills – as the government is claiming – is disingenuous at best.
Affordability is the UK’s real energy problemThe central problem facing the UK is not one of energy supply, but energy affordability. Energy bills are still double what they were two years ago, and an estimated 6.6 million households are in fuel poverty as we head into another harsh winter. Even the prime minister’s own energy secretary admits North Sea oil expansion plans “won’t bring bills down”.
We are clear that the government’s priority must be to reduce our dependence on gas and exposure to the volatile international energy markets that the King’s speech itself referred to.
There were other bills raised during the speech that are also worth touching on. The Tobacco and Vapes Bill is a positive step forward in government recognising the issues around vaping, but with five million disposable vapes thrown away every week in the UK, the rumoured scope of this bill doesn’t begin to tackle the environmental damage they are causing.
Similarly, the introduction of a Leasehold and Freehold Bill is welcome. There are huge issues around the quality and affordability of housing across the country, with the UK branded as having the worst insulated housing stock in Western Europe. However, the fact that the only reference to energy efficiency in the King’s speech is under “measures to support landlords” is rather telling of how serious the government is about tackling an issue that could have saved renters £8 billion in energy costs.
What should have been in the speech? With the government’s recent expansion of licensing for oil and gas, combined with the delay to net zero targets announced by the prime minister, the government risks undermining confidence in the UK’s energy transition and deterring the investment needed to make it a success.
There are many other things we would have liked to see in the King’s speech, here are just a few:
Prioritise clean energy:
- Onshore wind farms are harder to build than new coal mines. With decisions on development requiring under-resourced local councils to set out where onshore wind turbines can be built, investors and developers can’t be confident the same approval process will be followed each time.
- We can’t reach net zero if we keep heating our homes with gas. Last year, the UK installed the lowest number of heat pumps per capita among comparator countries.
- Reducing methane emissions is vital to reach net zero. Methane emissions have accounted for around a quarter of the net rise in global average temperatures since the pre-industrial era.
Make nature recovery integral to policy:
- Act on the government promises to end the sale of peat by 2024. This was something many hoped would be in this latest round of legislation. Peatlands are our largest natural carbon stores, locking away over 580 million tonnes, and they provide many other public benefits including helping to reduce flood risk, produce clean water and provide a home for many important species.
Get serious about curbing waste and using resources well:
- Set binding targets on resource use. Delays to the resources and waste strategy for England and the watering down of ambitions mean we continue to consume around twice as many resources per person as the UN says is sustainable.
People want progress not political posturing on the environment
With the UK set to breach its fourth and fifth carbon budgets (which set targets for the economy to cut climate impact), the King’s speech was an opportunity to reset on environment and nature friendly policies and position the UK as a global leader in the energy transition. Instead, the Conservatives calculated that the political advantages of creating dividing lines on environmental policy were too good to miss, even though climate change consistently ranks among the UK public’s top three concerns and polling suggests an anti-environment stance makes parties less electable.
Right now, it looks like it’s going to be a long, and painful, trudge towards the next general election, wasting time for environmental action that we do not have.