Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Cameron’s return as Foreign Secretary raises UK’s international profile

UK MP Chris Skidmore discusses Britain's foreign policy, China’s influence, energy security and climate policy
UK MP Chris Skidmore

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David Cameron, who was made foreign secretary in a surprise move by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his cabinet reshuffle on November 13, brings experience to the UK government at a time when major wars are raging in Ukraine and Gaza, China is increasing its influence and Britain needs to boost its development and energy security strategy.

“Overall, I welcome it. I think he brings a lot of experience and hopefully common sense around the table,” UK MP Chris Skidmore said.  “I think he is not an ideological politician, and he will hopefully inspire more trust,” he added.

Skidmore has been a Member of Parliament for Kingswood since 2010. In 2019, he was appointed Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth, attending Cabinet, during which time he signed the UK’s commitment to Net Zero by 2050 into law, and helped secure the UK Presidency of COP26. Most recently, he served as the Chair of the Government’s Independent Net Zero Review, and published the 340 page Mission Zero report in January 2023.

Skidmore sat down with NE Global for an exclusive interview at Liechtenstein Palace in Prague on November 15 to discuss the UK’s foreign policy, China’s increased influence, energy and climate policy ahead of COP28.

Cameron has been a reformer and effective communicator

Regarding the restoration of Cameron, Skidmore reminded that the former premier, who campaigned for the “Remain Campaign” as prime minister, is coming back now as foreign secretary in the government of Sunak, who voted for Brexit.

“I was always a strong supporter of David Cameron. I was George Osborne’s last Parliamentary Secretary in the Treasury, and it was a time when I thought the Conservative Party was liberal, positive, forth facing. They stood for reform rather than against,” he said.

Skidmore said the former premier, who oversaw the 2016 Brexit referendum, is a very effective communicator known to a lot of other countries but the UK still has to deal with a number of significant foreign policy issues. “I don’t know whether he will be able to find any new solutions to the challenge,” he added.

Asked what UK’s foreign policy is going to be ahead of the next general election, the UK Member of Parliament said it will also depend on the US election in November 2024. “If the UK election comes at the same time as the US election or after the election, if there is significant change it could affect the UK’s election process as well.”

Skidmore reminded the UK Supreme Court ruled on November 15 that the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful, which observers say is a blow to Sunak’s migration policy.

“I think from a foreign policy perspective, today we’ve seen the UK Supreme Court rule against Rwanda. I didn’t vote for that. I abstained on every single vote; I do not want to break international law. I think this is why the question now is could the UK, could Rishi Sunak go into a general election campaign, campaigning to pull out of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)? That would put us in the same bracket as Russia. The judgement today was not just that it is the European Court of Human Rights that’s the problem. There are other international treaties around torture, for example, that would be broken,” Skidmore said.

He acknowledged that a lot of other European countries are facing migration issues and are considering whether potentially they could establish relations with other countries. “This is not a British exemption – but there is a key question whether the ECHR becomes the UK’s next Brexit,” he added.

Relations with China

Skidmore said some members of the British Parliament are very concerned about the growing influence of China, noting that certain MPs have set up a China research group including the former leader of the Conservative Party Iain Duncan Smith. “There are seven members of parliament who are banned from entering China because they have spoken out against China and that is a concern and obviously the Chinese ambassador is now banned from attending the British parliament because of this situation,” Skidmore said. He smiled, noting that he is apparently banned in Russia, but he can still go to China.

“But we have seen two announcements this week where we must recognize the opportunities to work with China. We all live under the same skies; we are all going to be facing the same consequences of the climate crisis so understanding that China has produced more new energy this year than the entire amount of energy the UK uses – 432 terawatts worth of renewable power – demonstrates that China is putting its future economy on a renewable footing,” he said.

Skidmore warned, however, that and China’s renewable push could create a green trade war. “We’re almost having a proxy war now where potential green technologies and industry are going to be creating green trade wars of the future,” Skidmore added.

He reminded that US President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco on November 15 where they signed a joint declaration to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 and significant measures regarding energy efficiency as well.

“So, there are huge opportunities if we can ensure that, ‘Yes, we might not agree on everything, but we come together and agree on some things.’ That’s why I think COP and climate are important. I remember I got the UK’s Presidency of COP26. It was the same time when the UK was going through Brexit, and I thought as a result the European countries wouldn’t be interested in backing our candidacy because of Brexit. I came to the Czech Republic as a science minister and at the time there was no deal. The Czech Republic is a good friend to the UK, so we were looking to sign bilateral relationships in the event of no deal – around science, research, innovation,” he said.

“When I did the climate negotiations, I was stunned they were very happy to back us. What is interesting is climate seems to have a much less of a political potency. People are willing to come together to negotiate and come to agreements on climate conditions in ways they aren’t in other areas like trade. So, they are always using climate means by which then to engineer trade relationships of the future even with China,” Skidmore explained.

He noted, however, that the UK would still draw the line on human rights and not buy solar panels from Chinese regions where there are human rights abuses like Uyghur slave labor. “But we can’t live without China and that is the sort of reality. They have to be in the room, the same way we have to work with companies that produce oil and gas. They have to be in the room,” he quipped.

Critical minerals

The UK MP acknowledged that the West is dependent on China for critical minerals but stressed that there are critical minerals within the existing fossil fuel industries. “The challenge with critical minerals is I don’t want them to be used as an excuse to beat up the transition and say, ‘Oh look, we depend on China,'” he said. He cited the US CHIPS and Science Act for semiconductors as an example for creating local content and called for building international supply chains and critical minerals hubs, including in Australia, to mine lithium, creating stockpiles and make sure the components are in place.

Domestically, Cornwall-based Cornish Lithium is building a lithium extraction plant which is backed by the UK Government’s Getting Building Fund.

Regarding batteries, he noted that there are huge technological opportunities to recycle, reuse these materials, make sure that they don’t end up in battery graveyards like they did in the past. “I chair the All Party Parliamentary Environment Group in the House of Commons and one of the things we try to focus is disposable e-vapes because of the amount of minerals in these e-vapes or mobile phones – making sure we are reclaiming these minerals, creating a circular economy,” he stressed.

Skidmore, who signed Net Zero as a law as energy minister, said it helped re-evaluate supply chains. “Companies trying to meet emission targets and decarbonizing are now looking at supply chains saying, “For the last 50 years we have done this but we can do it differently.’ That’s exciting about Net Zero. Yes, the challenge is more pressing but it’s more pressing because we have done the research and we know what we did in the past,” he said.

Energy security

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted the need for Britain to boost its energy security and accelerate the pace of energy transition. “After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that’s when everything changed. About eight percent of our gas use was Russian gas. We then saw Europe stockpile gas and the price of wholesale gas go up dramatically. And that really brought home to the British public and households the link between the very fact the cost-of-living crisis with the cost of gas prices and we would need to diversify our supply in the future. That’s why I have been trying to make the case I think in the past we saw going green as being somehow destabilizing for our energy supplies. It’s our use of oil and gas that will put us at risk in the longer term because we would be dependent on foreign petrostates,” Skidmore argued.

He said the Middle East will also continue to be a point of contention in the short to medium term, affecting energy prices and energy security. “Obviously, it is a clear and present danger,” Skidmore said, reminding that the Saudis already restrict the net oil production which has driven oil prices up but have recently plateaued. A cold winter and higher gas prices are also a concern, he added.

“We have to make sure we have homegrown, home-blown energy. We will still be using our own oil and gas in the North Sea for the foreseeable future while that runs out. I’m personally against new oil and gas fields in the North Sea because I think the money is better spent on more renewables and more energy efficiency to reduce our gas use,” he said, criticizing Sunak’s policy announcements for the King’s Speech that the UK government will back its commitment to new oil and gas by legally requiring the regulator to conduct a licensing round every year.

“We can’t afford to be so dependent, and the UK is very dependent particularly because 80 percent of our home heating is gas compared to 50 percent in the rest of Europe. And if you look at our homes, they are some of the coldest in Europe because they are so poorly insulated compared to the rest of Europe. And if we insulated our homes, if we went off gas boilers went heat pumps, we would reduce our overall demand on energy by 40 percent. It’s significant I think when it comes to reducing our demand on fossil fuels,” he added.

The UK MP said a significant part of Britain’s energy infrastructure is aging. “We had 25 percent of our energy needs from nuclear. Most these nuclear plants are shutting down. They have reached the end of their natural life. So, there is a gap now that needs to be filled to keep the lights on,” he said.

Skidmore, who is also the chair of the Net Zero Review, said Britain needs to focus on an energy security strategy and building the necessary infrastructure. “Some of that must be around collaboration and cooperation with Europe as well. I welcome the shared commitment that we build a North Sea renewable farm with other countries, I welcome the commitment for partnerships on nuclear, partnerships on hydrogen,” he said, adding that the UK has plans for new nuclear plants and is phasing out coal.

“We are in a place now where I try to bring legislation where there was no new coal power generation. The last coal power plant is now closed so we’re completely off coal in the UK. And that’s one of the reasons we are decarbonizing so fast compared to the rest of G20 — it was getting off coal early. The challenge I think is going to be recognizing how we really maximize the efficiency of renewables. How we end curtailment. When we are generating so much energy that is not being used – that’s when we need to convert it potentially to hydrogen and make sure we try to create these new chains of energy for the future. Ultimately, that will help us win the argument around green technologies being more efficient and more efficient,” Skidmore said.

Green hydrogen – no magic bullet for decarbonization

Turning to hydrogen, he said there is a supply and demand imbalance. “We don’t have enough hydrogen to be able meet demand; we don’t have enough demand to be able to create the supply, the long-term security of supply. So, we got loads of little projects desperate for hydrogen but that does stack up at the moment to a certain pathway to engineer lasting supply in the long term. And then you got the challenge where the UK can benefit from differentiating from the European Union is around the taxonomy of hydrogen. Because I personally believe blue hydrogen can be created now but everyone wants to rush for green hydrogen which is this sort of mythical fuel we can get to,” he said.

He proposed to use blue hydrogen as an energy transition fuel in sectors where it is the best option to decarbonize, like the energy-intensive industries. “Everyone sees hydrogen as a solution to all their problems and if we are not careful, we are not going to get hydrogen effectively to demonstrate its worth – it must be around the industrial application to start with,” he said.

On the road to COP28

Regarding COP28 taking place in Dubai from 30 November until 12 December, Skidmore said he hopes the summit in UAE will provide long-term certainty, clarity, consistency of policy messaging. “I mentioned Biden-President Xi’s commitment on the tripling of renewable power. I think it’s happening now. It’s going to happen. This tripling of renewable energy by 2030 is really exciting now because it creates (climate) tipping points. You have this narrative out; how do you create tipping points? We move the markets. It’s about harboring energy efficiency. Methane is obviously 54 times more powerful than CO2, global warming, people haven’t met their 30 percent reduction target plans for 2030 for Glasgow. The challenge for me for UAE is you have colossal damage; you have the “Global South” stuff which is important but what I’m really interested is this Global Stocktake and the response to the stocktake,” he said, referring to a term describing the critical turning point when it comes to efforts to address climate change.

“I passionately believe the Net Zero will be achieved in spite of government because it will be markets that move and it’s already happening,” Skidmore said, adding, “China’s agreement with the US yesterday is very exciting and sets up, I hope, a positive outcome for COP because we have China and US around the table now already talking, it suggests that we will do.”


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Co-founder / Director of Energy & Climate Policy and Security at NE Global Media


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