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Christopher Booker: What Planet Are Ministers Living On?

Christopher Booker, Daily Mail

Just when we need heat and light for our homes and workplaces more than ever, we are rapidly heading for by far the most serious energy crisis this country has ever faced.

With much of Britain still freezing under a layer of snow, the timing of the action plan set out yesterday by Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, could not have been more immaculate.

He wanted to tell us just how committed his government is to cutting emissions of carbon dioxide from the ‘costly, carbon-intense fossil fuels’ we use for more than ’80 per cent of the heating used in UK homes, businesses and industry’.

And how does he propose to do this? He wants to spend £9 million to ‘help local authorities get heat network schemes [designed to pipe heat to homes from a central source] up and running in towns and cities across the country’.

He wants to hire yet more civil servants to set up a ‘Heat Network Unit’ to provide ‘expert advice’. 

And he wants us to pay for ‘100 green apprenticeships’ for ‘young people to work in smallscale renewable technologies’.

What planet is this man living on? He has only to step outside his centrally heated Whitehall office to see that the rest of us are having to struggle through the coldest March for 50 years.

Yet, just when we need heat and light for our homes and workplaces more than ever, we are rapidly heading for by far the most serious energy crisis this country has ever faced.

We learned at the weekend that Britain’s gas supplies have run so perilously low that we could be depending on just two giant tankers imported from the Middle East to heat our homes at a time when world gas prices are soaring.

Last week, we also lost two more of our major coal-fired power stations, forced to close down by an EU pollution directive – leading the head of our second-largest power company, SSE, to warn our generating capacity is being cut back so far that major blackouts may soon be inevitable.

Mr Davey babbles away about ‘heat networks’, but if he had his mind on the job he is paid for, he might realise that in the real world we have a perfect storm on our hands. As every squeezed family in the country will tell you, our energy bills are rocketing upwards, having already doubled in seven years.

As ministers admitted yesterday, families will be forced to pay almost £300 in green taxes on their energy bills by the end of the decade (though Ed Davey did try to make a case that even greater savings will be achieved due to reduced consumption).

What is also clear is that our gas and electricity supplies are fast running out.

And if, on top of all this, you learned that next week the Government is imposing a swingeing new tax on all the coal and gas-fired power stations – which provide more than two-thirds of our electricity – would you not throw up your hands in stunned disbelief?

But that is what is about to happen with George Osborne’s new ‘carbon tax’, deliberately designed not only to double the price of electricity from our remaining fossil fuel power plants within a few years, but to make it hard for them to survive at all.

All this adds up to as great an act of political mismanagement as any in our history.

So, how did we come to such a terrifying pass?

There is one reason above all why our energy policy has gone so disastrously off the rails – and it lies in the conviction shared by politicians of all major parties that we must do all we can to save the planet by reducing CO² emissions.

At the time when this belief began to take shape, back in the Nineties, for 40 years Britain had had an electricity industry as efficient as any, based on the coal of which we had huge reserves and the nuclear power with which we once led the world.

Then we decided to close down most of our coal industry in favour of a ‘dash for gas’, because it gives off only half as much carbon dioxide as coal – this at a time when we still had enough cheap gas from the North Sea not to worry about becoming dependent on costly gas imports.

The next move came in 2003 with Tony Blair’s energy white paper, which ruled out building any more coal or nuclear power stations in favour of going flat out for ‘renewables’. This was centred on pouring huge subsidies into building thousands of wind turbines.

By 2008, so obsessed had our politicians become with the supposed threat from CO² that Parliament voted almost unanimously for Ed Miliband’s Climate Change Act, committing Britain uniquely in the world to reducing its emissions by 80 per cent in just 40 years.

Gordon Brown boasted about spending £100 billion on making Britain ‘the wind farm capital of the world’.

But what the politicians failed to realise was that wind and solar are not only by far the most expensive means of producing electricity – hence those green subsidies we all have to fund through our electricity bills – they are also the most unreliable, because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

When David Cameron took over in 2010, his ‘greenest government ever’ continued the headlong rush to disaster, not just by pouring ever more subsidies into those inefficient wind farms, but by deliberately driving up the price of electricity from coal and gas, to make wind energy seem competitive.

Hence George Osborne’s decision to impose a ‘carbon tax’, which comes into force on April Fool’s Day – designed to rise every year at such a rate it will make Britain’s electricity the most expensive in Europe.

Yet the terrifying fact is that we really do need those reliable power stations Osborne is trying to price out of business – not least to provide constantly available back-up for the 32,000 wind turbines our ministers eulogise, for all those times when the wind is not blowing.

Nothing better illustrates the insanity of the shambles our politicians have led us into than the fact that, just when we are closing down our coal-fired power stations in the hope of saving the planet, the Chinese are building 363 more of them, the Indians a further 455 and even the Germans another 20 – adding far more CO² to the world’s atmosphere every week than Britain puts out in a year.

The disaster we face is only made harder to bear by the realisation that experts were predicting it a decade ago, yet so lost were our politicians in their bubble of green make-believe that they were unable to listen.

So how are we to get out of this mess? If we had a grown-up government, capable of looking at the evidence, the first thing it would do would be to admit we have a quite unprecedented crisis on our hands – one that can only be met by junking all that childish wishful thinking which has shaped our national energy policy for 20 years.

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