The cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine have brought the importance of fuel security to the forefront of the national debate. It is increasingly clear that countries need to be more self-sufficient, and the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels is a huge contributor to making the country less secure. Right now, it is also making us poorer.
The UK still imports billions of dollars of oil every year to meet our energy demands. According to the House of Commons community report from January of this year, fossil fuels are used to meet around 75% of the UK’s energy needs, and the past year has shown what a precarious position this puts us in. It makes us dependent on oil and gas countries and their leaders. Although the UK should try to remain globally relevant, it should also be as self-sufficient as possible so the threat of another country turning the gas off doesn’t dictate our national policy. Countries like France, which maintains a large nuclear component in its energy mix, and Norway, where almost all energy comes from renewable sources, are faring better under the current global crises than the UK, which is set to be the only major economy to shrink in 2023.
There are countless environmental reasons to move away from fossil fuels, but the central one is that burning them is releasing more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, which is warming our planet and acidifying our oceans, fuelling both the climate and ecological crises. This isn’t some niche opinion: the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental agency that works with countries around the world on energy policy, has said that if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C, no new oil and gas fields should be explored.
Even without these concerns, the case to transition to clean and renewable energy has never been stronger than it is right now.
Great Britain is ideally positioned to take full advantage of clean energy sources: as an island with a huge proportion of coastline compared to its area, renewables are an easy option. Coastal areas tend to be windier, hence there is a lot of space available for offshore wind farms. Indeed, in recent years, the UK has been breaking records for electricity generation — achieving longer and longer solar generation times, going the longest period without running a coal generator since the industrial revolution, and recording the greenest month for electricity generation by reaching new lows of CO2 outputs.
What do we need to do?
- One strand of the switch to clean and renewable energy is the need to tackle demand and consumption. Energy consumption, and therefore demand, is still rising, and demand drives the way that electricity is produced and how much it costs. The national grid turns on power stations to meet demand as dynamically as possible, starting with the cheapest options. In the UK that means nuclear, then wind, solar and other renewables, and then gas and even coal when demand spikes and renewables aren’t able to meet the requirement. If we can lower and smooth demand on the grid, we can make the most efficient use of the best energy sources.
- We need investment in energy sources lower down the chain that feed the national grid to increase capacity. The grid can’t run full-time on intermittent sources like wind, so constant sources, like nuclear, are needed if we are going to leave fossil fuels behind, and so are energy-storage options coupled to renewable resources like pumped hydropower.
- The government needs to legislate further to disincentivise fossil-fuel use. The UK has a commitment to reach net zero by 2050 and zero carbon generation by 2035 (commitments that exist because all the science says we must stop emitting greenhouse gases). Carbon pricing — a UK carbon tax — has shown the effect that real legislative intervention can have: the scheme made coal-fired power stations incredibly expensive to run, pushing coal generation to the very fringes of the UK energy mix in just a few years.
All of this makes decisions like that taken by the UK government to award new licences to expand fossil-fuel extraction absolutely baffling.
The need to leave fossil fuels behind and switch to clean, green, and renewable energy now is clear and science-based. It is also the most economically sound option for the long run. Although this winter everyone has been suffering from the effects of the cost-of-living crisis, existing renewables have lessened the strain. Green energy has even overtaken gas as the main contributor to the UK’s electricity generation this winter, and it was only possible because of our pre-existing green-energy infrastructure. We need more of it, and far, far less fossil-fuel dependency. We could lead in the technology and energy sectors, pushing the cutting edge forward and exporting our lessons learnt. Fossil fuels are one of the greatest harms to the planet, and we can go further and faster towards making our energy cleaner and greener right now.