The government’s decision to overturn an effective five-year-old ban on new onshore wind power generation is hugely welcome. Wind provides the cheapest energy, with the first subsidy-free contracts for offshore projects awarded last year. Onshore wind is even cheaper. It is also popular, scoring above other infrastructure (including roads and railway stations) in opinion polls despite the efforts of climate denialists to portray it as a public nuisance. Most importantly, it is renewable and very low-carbon. Unlike oil, gas and coal, wind does not produce greenhouse gases (apart from in the initial phase of manufacturing and installation) and is not something we can run out of. Unlike nuclear, it does not produce toxic waste as a byproduct.
The government’s climate advisers say that onshore wind power capacity will need to triple in 15 years if the UK is to meet the target of net-zero emissions by 2050. This is a huge challenge, and forms just one part of an even bigger one. The good news is that the UK’s wind sector is already – and despite David Cameron’s foolish decision to stymie it – a world-beating one. While the solar power industry was seriously damaged by the removal of subsidies, with domestic installations collapsing after the withdrawal of feed-in tariffs, wind companies were able to shift resources and expertise offshore.
Ministers must not be allowed to sit on their laurels. Wind and solar will not solve all our energy problems and research and development into battery storage, carbon capture and renewable power projects of all kinds are urgently needed. Systematic retrofitting of the UK’s aged housing stock, to increase energy efficiency, has been shamefully neglected. Having promised that the public will, in future, have a greater say over wind developments through an altered planning process, ministers must now ensure that all new housing and construction projects are compatible with climate goals.
But if Boris Johnson’s government should expect limited credit for reversing a destructive decision that many of its own ministers supported, the significance of Monday’s announcement should not be underestimated. Under the last two prime ministers, energy policy often appeared more ideological than rational. While environmental campaigners of all stripes, including some Conservatives, argued in vain on behalf of renewables, ministers consistently (and in the teeth of furious local opposition) sided with frackers.
That chapter has now ended. The UK’s fracking industry has all but collapsed. The influence on public life of climate deniers including former chancellor Nigel Lawson has dramatically waned – with 2019’s upsurge of climate activism among the causes. The UK has a mountain to climb to reach emissions targets, and the government’s record so far is not encouraging. But the return of onshore wind is a breath of fresh air.