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An opportunity for Britain's new prime minister

THE arrival of a new chief executive is always a good moment to reassess strategy. Old assumptions and projects that have failed can be dropped, and fresh ambitions set out.

That is as true in politics as in business, and essential when it comes to energy policy in the UK because the old approach - which dates back to 2013 - is long overdue for some sharp rethinking.

The context has changed a great deal in those six years.

Energy prices have fallen for oil, gas, wind and solar. Supply is plentiful, and the idea that expensive and unpopular sources would be essential to keep the lights on is no longer valid. Fracking may be safe but it is unnecessary; and uncompetitive, in the absence of the reserves of the US. A vast programme of new nuclear developments at the prices set for Hinkley Point now looks ridiculous and impossible to finance.

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Meanwhile, climate change has become a more urgent problem. The UN summit in Paris in 2015 produced a set of promises from countries across the world, but there was no enforcement mechanism and many are falling short on delivery. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and there are tangible signs of the impact of global warming, such as the melting of the Arctic ice.

As a result, climate and wider environmental issues have come to the centre of politics, cutting across the normal boundaries of age, class and nationality.

The result of the Conservative party leadership contest will this week give the UK a new prime minister who will have the opportunity both to define the issue in more realistic global terms and to lead the development of practical solutions.

SHAPE THE OUTCOME

Britain, jointly with Italy, is likely to host the UN's important climate change meeting next year - COP26, the successor to the Paris conference. Theresa May's successor in Downing Street should seize that chance and begin now to shape the outcome.

He will be helped by the fact that the right policy matches the popular will: people want secure supplies of energy that does them no harm, at a cost they can afford.

It is the lower income countries - led by China and India - whose emissions, mainly from coal, pose the greatest challenge. To trade off climate change against human development is both immoral and unrealistic. So we need to identify and deploy low carbon energy that can compete on cost with every other source of supply.

"Low cost, low carbon" is a good banner headline for the policy that Boris Johnson, if he wins the election as expected, should promote - for the country and for the world as a whole. Grand long-term targets, such as Mrs May's promise of net zero emissions by 2050, are not enough without supporting plans for delivery. The trajectory of growing global emissions must be halted and reversed. Instead of the vague promises produced in Paris, the imperative for COP26 is to create a coalition of countries committed to the research and development of all the possible solutions.

These range from energy storage at grid level, which could transform the availability and economics of renewables, to the advances in fusion and nuclear technology that could rescue an industry beset by the failure and expense of the current generation of plants. There is the use of hydrogen to meet domestic and industrial energy needs; the conversion of waste into power; the huge opportunities to improve energy efficiency; the application of advanced systems to integrate and optimise supply and consumption through the use of information technology and artificial intelligence - and more.

SKILLS AND RESOURCES

Many countries have relevant skills and resources: China is the world leader in renewables and grid technology, while the US is strong in IT and has powerful national energy laboratories. Germany and Japan can bring engineering excellence and knowledge of how energy can best be used - for instance, in vehicles and industry. Smaller countries can also contribute. Denmark is a leader in wind turbine technology, Israel in the management of water supplies.

Britain has the potential to lead and co-ordinate this effort because of its scientific base, and its network of international links which, as the Royal Society argued last week, must be sustained beyond Brexit. From those links, held by universities and entities such as the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Faraday Institution, a coherent international work programme can be created. The country also has the financial and commercial skills to help translate technical advances into practical reality.

Mr Johnson trades on optimism and hope. Both are much needed when it comes to energy policy and climate change - the challenge is substantial but it would be wrong to submit to fatalism.

Mr Johnson once said that he chose politics over journalism because "they don't put up statues to journalists". How true. Mr Johnson will remember from his classics education that the Romans had a phrase for those who triumphed against the odds: "Sic itur ad astra"; thus one goes to the stars - such is the way to immortal fame. FT

  • The writer is an energy commentator for the Financial Times and chair of The Policy Institute at King's College London

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