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Brexit diverting UK 'political firing power' away from climate change

The mammoth task of leaving the European Union is diverting U.K. government attention away from climate policy and slowing progress in achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, it was argued at an energy sector conference in London on Oct. 15, which was hosted near the center of power in Westminster.

Much of the country's "political firing power" is currently not being spent on tackling climate change, but rather on Brexit, Polly Billington, director of campaign organization UK100 and a London Labour Party councilor, said at the event, organized by trade association Energy UK.

As an example, the Queen's speech on Oct. 14 laying out the government's policy priorities included seven bills on Brexit and one on the environment — encompassing targets for plastic pollution, biodiversity and water quality. And the U.K. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, or BEIS, has pushed back the publication of its long-anticipated energy white paper, laying out the path to achieving net-zero carbon emissions, to 2020.

"The biggest barrier" to progress on curbing climate change is politics, followed by finance, Billington argued. "If we get this wrong," the consequences of climate change could create divisions in British society which would make Brexit look "like a vicar's tea party," she added.

Kristian Ruby, general secretary of Brussels-based sector association Eurelectric, also emphasized the need for a clear focus on climate policy in Westminster and in business.

"One hundred years from now, are people going to talk about whether Boris Johnson was able to get a [Brexit] deal or not, or are we going to look back at whether an industry or a society stepped up to this challenge?" Ruby asked. "We should continue to cooperate across the value chain and across the channel to fix this big problem … and work together regardless of the outcome of Brexit."

BEIS provided a response on Oct. 15 to a series of recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change on how to achieve net-zero. Andrea Leadsom, the business and energy secretary, said, "4 months ago the UK took the bold step of becoming the first country in the developed world to put into law our ambition to wipe out the UK's contribution to climate change by 2050, following the [committee's] advice."

Leadsom added, "This builds on our long and proud track record of leadership — since 1990 we've cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 42% while growing our economy by more than two-thirds. More than half of our electricity currently comes from low carbon sources. And we will keep on going further and faster to ensure our action meets our ambition."

Local permitting power for batteries

Some levers are indeed being moved in Westminster: On Oct. 15, BEIS released a consultation for simplifying local energy storage projects. The consultation proposes that U.K. battery projects with capacity over 50 MW will no longer have to go through the time-consuming and potentially expensive Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project planning process.

This move is expected to speed up developments, ease the current project backlog and lower developers' costs pre-construction. Having considered responses to a previous consultation on the issue, the government's new preferred policy is "to carve out electricity storage, except pumped hydro, from the [Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project] regime in England and Wales" and instead transfer permitting power to local authorities.

The consultation was welcomed by the Renewable Energy Association, a U.K. trade association, whose head of policy Frank Gordon said that while the group needs to further scrutinize the plan, the proposal should "unlock more flexibility in the system and lead to less … back up capacity for the networks," which could save consumers as much as £8 billion in the coming decades.

The government's commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, enshrined in law earlier this year, will open a large market for grid balancing technologies, including batteries and hydrogen storage, thinktank Aurora Energy Research predicts.

But the U.K. has not yet seen a surge in private sector investment in battery technology, despite initial industry excitement. While the capital is there, the right government framework supporting long-term surety does not yet exist, said Chris Elder, general manager for U.K. business at power plant operator InterGen (UK) Ltd., at the Energy UK conference.

"The reason it hasn't happened is you're asking the private sector to take a significant amount of merchant risk. They are not going to do that when other technologies are being subsidized," he said.