Will the EU see RED over UK renewable energy?

Unverified news broke last week that in what could be one of the opening salvos of Brexit negotiation cherry-picking, government officials are working out how to ditch the UK’s renewable energy targets while remaining in Europe’s energy market.

This seemed to be cemented over the weekend by the latest example that government documents and public transport don't mix when a nosey passenger photographed documents held by a senior civil servant. According the The Times (£), the notes will form part of a speech to be given later this month that will say climate change efforts "will be scaled back" to make way for post-Brexit trade deals.

Considering the current government's approach to clean energy (taken up by Cameron and cemented by May), it’s hardly surprising that this should be the case. Despite a recent survey suggesting the contrary, Conservative politicians in any case seem uncomfortable with low carbon technologies.

Whether their disruptive nature or the replacement they represent of established (and wealthy) industries is the issue or not, the fact remains that progress towards a low carbon future for the UK has slowed in the last 18 months.

It’s not unexpected to see this extended towards our exit from the European Union, which has set the UK’s overall target for renewable energy of 15% through the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).

However, what makes it more obvious as a potential negotiating point is that the UK had little to no chance of meeting these targets anyway, and the government knows it. While proliferation of solar and wind in recent years has meant the sub-target of 30% renewable electricity is all but certain, consistent policy failures have left us woefully behind on the 12% target for heat and the binding 10% renewable transport goal.

In its most recent Future Energy Scenarios (well worth a read), National Grid very plainly pointed out: “We believe the progress required in the heat and transport sector is beyond what can be achieved on time.”

Even in its most optimistic scenario, National Grid says the UK wouldn’t meet these goals until 2022.

So instead of attempting to ramp up efforts to close the gap, keep up with our European members and ‘do our bit’ for the environment, the government now looks like it intends to weasel out of previous commitments and avoid the fines that other countries will have to face if they fail to meet their targets.

It’s not clear what the consequences will be for a member state if it misses its targets, let alone one that will have left by the time the 2020 deadline arrives. Financial penalties appear to be the most likely, with Ireland’s government said to be factoring fines into its future spending plans as it too is well off the pace.

Other sanctions could be imposed, and at a time with both sides appear set on securing a pound of flesh, working out how to stay in Europe’s energy market (surely an unnegotiable necessity for the UK) while avoiding the bad Brexit PR of paying the European Court of Justice for our failings, this will surely be an early sticking point.

This is all the more true thanks to Europe’s continued efforts to promote renewables. Yes, the Winter Package was criticised by removing member state targets in favour of an overarching goal but that is still a more proactive approach than us.

The Climate Change Act locks us in to emissions reduction but in the absence of a much delayed plan from government, there is no way of knowing what role increased renewable energy will have in the UK’s efforts. It also moves the goalposts to 2050 which could pass the buck on to whichever government is in place in a few decades time.

And so for the sake of our green and pleasant land, let’s hope the EU sticks to its goals (for whatever reason) and holds the UK to account on its previous commitments because on current trends, that drive won’t come from Whitehall.