UK government ministers have held private meetings with fossil fuel and biomass energy producers roughly nine times as often as they met companies involved in clean energy production, despite the increasing urgency of meeting the government’s climate targets.
Analysis by DeSmog, the environmental investigation group, of publicly available data shows that ministers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) held 63 private meetings – with one company present, along with ministers and advisers – with fossil fuel and biomass energy producers between 22 July 2019 and 18 March 2021.
Ministers, including the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, and his junior ministers held only seven private meetings with renewable energy generators over the same period.
As well as the small private meetings, ministers also attended hundreds of other larger group meetings with fossil fuel companies and their representatives. Fossil fuel producers were present at 309 of these, compared with 60 for renewable energy generators.
Ministers had fossil fuel-related meetings at least 473 times, but renewables-related meetings only 317 times over the period, according to the DeSmog analysis. Shell and BP were present at ministerial meetings 57 and 58 times respectively over the period.
Connor Schwartz, the climate lead at Friends of the Earth, said the disparity showed ministers’ attention was not focused on the low-carbon transformation required in the UK, and sent a poor signal ahead of vital UN climate talks, Cop26, to be held in Glasgow this November.
“You can tell a lot about a government based on the company it keeps – this volume of meetings with the fossil fuel industry shows where priorities and loyalties lie,” he said.
“As we head into the Glasgow climate talks, this government needs to end UK support for damaging fossil fuels, not entertain the [fossil fuel] industry by filling their diaries with this number of meetings, and to the exclusion of the renewable sector.”
A government spokesperson said: “These claims are ludicrous. We make no apology for meeting major energy suppliers and employers during a global pandemic, but these figures are a highly selective and small snapshot of private meetings which misrepresent our wider engagement and priorities.
“In this year alone, we’ve secured record investment in wind power totalling GBP450m which has created and secured 2,400 jobs. In addition, we have published a world-leading hydrogen strategy, launched a new UK emissions trading scheme, committed to end coal power by 2024 and pledged GBP1bn in funding to support the development of carbon capture.”
The revelations come amid increasing concern over the government’s lack of detailed plans to meet the long-term target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the interim targets of a 68% reduction by 2030 and 78% by 2035.
The near-term targets are a particular focus as the UK prepares to host Cop26, to which all nations will be asked to come with not only stringent carbon-cutting targets – of which the UK’s is one of the most ambitious – but also credible plans on how to meet such goals.
MPs, industry, green groups and the government’s statutory advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, have raised concerns that the government’s policies and measures will not produce the emissions cuts needed to meet the targets.
Beis meetings with the energy industry also show a strong interest in biomass power, by which energy is generated from burning wood in place of fossil fuels. The practice is condemned by many green groups because it can involve tearing down forests to feed into power station boilers – a practice proponents proclaim is carbon-neutral over time, as the trees are regrown, but which detractors points out creates emissions now while the carbon uptake of trees takes place over decades. There are also concerns over the impact of biomass on wildlife and woodland biodiversity, when used at a large scale, and its potential for air pollution.
Drax used to operate one of Europe’s biggest coal-fired power stations, but has converted to be one of the biggest consumers of wood for burning, much of it imported from Canada, where campaigners are increasingly concerned about biomass production. Drax met ministers on 31 occasions over the period surveyed, including a site visit by Kwarteng to the company’s main power station in Yorkshire.
A Drax spokesperson said: “Drax was the first in the world to capture carbon from a 100% biomass feedstock in early 2019 by using the vital negative emissions technology Beccs [bioenergy with carbon capture and storage] and this understandably attracted interest from businesses, governments and other organisations globally.
“The UK government is one of the many organisations we’ve met with since then to discuss the exciting work we’re doing to deploy Beccs, removing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, whilst creating thousands of jobs and clean growth in the north.”
As well as meetings with Kwarteng and his junior ministers, including Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the overall schedule of Beis meetings also included meetings held by Alok Sharma, now the cabinet minister in charge of the Cop26 talks, in his previous role as business secretary, and a handful with Greg Clark, who was business secretary under Theresa May.