26 Jun 2014
Interview: Energy minister Greg Barker
The second in our short series of interviews with representatives of different political parties is Greg Barker, Minister of State at the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC). He is also Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle. He has been very involved in the community energy field, and has visited a number of Transition initiatives, including Totnes and Brixton Energy. We started by asking what, for him, are the defining characteristics of Conservative politics in relation to sustainability and climate change.
“At the heart of the Conservatives approach to the green agenda has been a strong belief in smart financial discipline, driving costs down and innovation up. The reform of the Feed-In tariffs is a good case in point – the quicker subsidies can come down, the greater the scale of deployment that can be afforded. We’ve now reached over 3GW of solar PV deployment and a fantastic half a million homes now generate their own electricity. Thanks to falling costs and rising innovation the UK as a whole is now a leading destination for low carbon investment.
Is fracking really a defensible approach in the context of the urgent need to drive down emissions?
If done to high environmental standards and takes on board the views of local communities, gas can play an important role in helping bring down our emissions. Coal is the biggest threat to climate stability. Gas offers a chance in the short to medium term, as we phase out coal and bring more intermittent renewables onto the system, to massively reduce global emissions.
Do you see any incompatability between economic growth and tackling climate change on the scale required? Does you see any evidence from anywhere in the world that has successfully decoupled growth and emissions?
Here in the UK the Coalition Government is demonstrating in practice that low carbon jobs and growth are an essential part of our long-term economic plan. Since 2010, thanks to Coalition green policies, we have mobilised a staggering £34 billion of private investment into large scale renewable electricity. That’s bigger than HS2 and will potentially support almost 37,000 jobs.
Just last month, Siemens announced plans to build two turbine manufacturing plants in Hull – representing £310 million of investment. This shows the UK is leading the way as the largest producer of offshore wind on the planet. It is a fantastic vote of confidence in the UK’s low carbon economy.
But the bottom lines is that we are bang on track to meet our ambitious 2050 emissions target and the UK now enjoys the highest economic growth in the G7.
Do you think the current government lacks a coherent underlying narrative in terms of climate change? We get proposed airport expansion, new roads, an unstable market for investment in renewables, the Green Deal resulting in very little take-up, a rumoured policy in the next manifesto of blocking all onshore wind farms, tax cuts for fossil fuel exploration. Does this really look like a government committed to being “the greenest ever”, or like greenwash onto a traditional economic growth agenda?
This is a rather loaded question! But surely nothing better illustrates this government’s commitment to being the ‘greenest ever’ than the creation of Europe’s first dedicated Green Investment Bank. This was a profoundly Conservative idea. It was first announced by George Osborne in 2009 – before any other major political party. The idea was then fleshed out by the Conservative, Green Investment Bank Commission of financial experts, under the chairmanship of senior investment banker Bob Wigley. Then the new Bank was incorporated by statute, by the Coalition Government. It is already catalysing billions of pounds of new investment at the cutting edge of the green economy.
In decades to come the GIB will be seen as another great Conservative initiative alongside such historic Conservative measures as the successful agreement of the 1992 Rio Earth Treaty.
You have been a keen advocate of community renewables, and as one that follows you on Twitter I note that you seem to spend most days visiting such projects! Why do you think community renewables matter, and what is their potential do you think?
I’m a very keen advocate of community energy and indeed a much more decentralised energy system generally. I’ve been making the case since 2006, when I published a pamphlet, Power to the People. This called for a radical new approach to usher in an age of popular decentralised energy. At its heart this is about enabling homes, businesses and communities to really take control over their energy bills and create a greener, more local energy sector.
Community energy also plays into my vision of an energy sector not of the Big 6 but of the Big 60,000. This is not only about households but also companies, public sector and third sector organisations grabbing the opportunity to generate their own energy and really starting to export their excess on a competitive, commercial basis. Already, under this government we’ve made great progress. We’ve published the UK’s first ever Community Energy Strategy. But there’s still much more to do and this is where initiatives such as Transition Town Totnes are so important.
Given the scale of the challenges you face in making change happen, how can Transition initiatives help you in achieving what you want to achieve?
Transition initiatives like Transition Town Totnes are a fantastic for engaging local communities and driving change. It’s central government that sets the strategic policy direction but ultimately we need local communities to help make things happen at the grassroots level.
I visited Transition Streets last year and saw first-hand the terrific work that’s being done. Not only is the initiative helping to encourage households to take effective and practical steps to reduce their energy use and save money but it’s also bringing neighbourhoods together too.