Snap elections, Brexit bias and why the green economy must take centre stage

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When news began to filter through on Tuesday morning of a surprise announcement from the prime minister, the media rumour mill kicked into overdrive. Is she resigning? Are we at war with Spain? Is Number 10 following Buckingham Palace’s lead and going solar? By 11am it had become clear that it was none of those announcements.

It was just a snap general election. Just another poll. Only a bit more political upheaval. Just a few more mere months of uncertainty. And, when you’ve had to contend with almost two years of that – as the UK renewables lobby, and many other industries, have – what’s another seven weeks between friends?

Yesterday’s (19 April 2017) vote to approve May’s snap poll means that parliament will dissolve on 3 May and on 8 June the British public will take to the polls for the third meaningful time in just over two years. While the betting markets consider it rather unlikely that there’ll be another major shift in the UK’s political landscape, a general election just two years after the last and 13 months after the Brexit vote is not particularly conducive to a stable environment.

It’s of little surprise that Brenda from Bristol is exasperated by it all.

But an election there will be, and yesterday kicked off in earnest an intense seven weeks of campaigning. Battle lines are being drawn up and there have already been some interesting developments in personnel. BEIS select committee chair Iain Wright, who was doing a sterling job of skewering government energy policy, announced his decision to stand down to pursue other interests. So too has solar’s old foe George Osborne, who’ll trade his Tatton seat for the hot one at the Evening Standard. One wonders if the big green axe has been left for his successor anywhere.

And when an election taketh away, it can too giveth. Sir Ed Davey has confirmed that he will look to regain his old Kingston and Surbiton seat and, given that he spent most of the last two years scrutinising the government’s management of energy policy, BEIS won’t enjoy him darkening their doors once again.

This will not, however, be an election dominated by personalities. In a welcome change from certain elections across the pond, politics and policy will take centre stage. Just the one policy, in fact; what shade of Brexit will be enacted.

And therein lies the danger for the UK’s clean energy and climate change credentials. Brexit has been an all-encompassing force in Whitehall since last June and the root cause of an almighty policy log jam. It was the reason why the smart power call for evidence didn’t see the light of day for several months last year and has been a considerable factor in the delay of the emissions reduction plan clean growth plan.

There is now a real risk that Brexit will dominate the next seven weeks, pushing all other issues into the shade. And why wouldn’t it? There has scarcely been political developments promising to reshape the country as much as its vote to leave the European Union.

But the need to decarbonise and the premise of the green economy promises to hold sway over the UK long after the Brexit dust has (finally) settled. The fifth carbon budget – ratified by Amber Rudd last summer but still not legislated for by BEIS nearly 10 months on – dictates how far the country must come by the end of 2032. That might seem like a distant hurdle to overcome, but progress over the next 15 years will largely be shaped by policy machinations that take place now. Further delay – as alluded to yesterday by climate change minister Nick Hurd – only jeopardises that progress and, ultimately, the chances of success.

When failure is not an option – as is the case with climate change – it beggars belief that such a prominent issue cannot wrestle some of the attention during a general election.

It is all the more baffling when you consider the sheer potential of the UK’s green economy. The most recent ONS statistics from earlier this month placed the low carbon sector’s contribution to the total economy to be £43.1 billion. With the UK looking to steal a march on other countries in nascent fields like battery storage and electric vehicles, this could easily grow providing the right support is in place.

Pledging increased support for the low carbon economy would, if managed properly, make for ideal political gains. The economy stands to be boosted, jobs would be created and, crucially, it would bring us back in line with the majority of the developed world.

Despite the initial exasperation, the next seven weeks will be of keen interest. The mainstream political parties have yet another chance to bring the renewables lobby in from the cold, enabling it to prevent the warm.

Or we could have another seven weeks of entrenched debate that rarely deviates far from the red, white and blue, hard or soft, Brexit-themed elephant in the room.

I know which one I’d prefer, and I’m willing to bet Brenda from Bristol would feel the same way.