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Environment

Why Britain Lifting the Ban on Onshore Wind Farm Subsidies Is Big News for the Environment

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goals include Goal 12 for responsible consumption and production, and Goal 13 for climate action. The UK’s efforts in wind energy are so important because we need to find a way of powering our lives that’s sustainable in order to achieve these goals and hit our net-zero emissions targets. Join the movement by taking environmental action here. 

The UK has reversed its 4-year ban on onshore wind farm subsidies.

It means companies will once again be able to compete for government contracts that will stimulate investment into building more wind turbines on land — one of the cheapest ways to produce renewable energy.

It’s a decision that aims to take another step towards Britain’s goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The ban was first brought in by former prime minister David Cameron in 2016 after pressure from Conservative MPs who argued that wind turbines were eyesores in rural communities. 

It signified more widespread climate inaction at the time: the following year, investment in green energy fell by 56% — a bigger drop in funding than any other country on the planet in 2017. 

The 2016 ban resulted in a huge decline in onshore wind farms in the UK. Last year, just one new farm opened, compared to the 400 that opened five years earlier. That’s despite a survey conducted by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that revealed a record 78% of the British public were supportive of onshore wind. 

But the announcement on Monday that subsidies will return could signal that change is coming: that small steps are being taken to lower the price of wind power and unlock renewable investments. The announcement also comes in the wake of a legal defeat on plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, a decision the court made based on targets outlined in the Paris Agreement.

The subsidies are essentially government contracts that guarantee a price for the energy the wind farms will create after they’ve been built — taking a significant level of risk away from the investment. Businesses will then be able to compete for the contracts at an auction next year — which will reportedly likely lead to projects being completed approximately halfway into the decade.

Back in 2018, wind power overtook nuclear energy for the first time — and now supplies approximately 20% of all electricity in the UK. Renewable energy accounts for roughly a third of all power in Britain, according to Renewable UK. But the government wants 70% of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030.

“Renewable energy is absolutely key to achieving the radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that the UK needs,” a spokesperson from environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth told Global Citizen. 

“Wind energy is one of the cheapest forms of energy currently available, so onshore wind has the potential to play a highly significant role in offering clean renewable energy and in supporting a transition away from fossil fuels,” they continued.

Alok Sharma — the UK’s secretary of state for business and energy who will also lead preparations for COP26, the biggest climate conference since the Paris Agreement that’s being hosted in Glasgow in Novembersaid that the race to net-zero “means making the UK a world leader in renewable energy”.

And certainly, Britain is already a world leader when it comes to offshore wind energy — with the UK already controlling 36% of the world’s offshore wind capacity, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

Despite it being more expensive to build turbines in the sea, there’s been a wave of offshore wind projects approved in Britain in the last few years — including what will be the world’s largest wind farm, with the biggest turbines ever built, across 80 miles of artificial island off the Yorkshire coast.

Every turbine to be built this year for the Dogger Bank project will be twice the height of the London Eye and power 16,000 homes each, according to the Guardian, while each blade will be longer than London’s Big Ben clock tower. 

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However any ambition to duplicate this success onshore too will require the consent of local communities — something that the Financial Times reports makes it more likely that projects will happen in Scotland instead of England under planning restriction rules.

“There is huge public support for onshore wind and solar, and these technologies have a vital role to play in helping the UK meet its clean energy ambitions,” the Friends of the Earth spokesperson continued. 

“We now need to see join-up between [government] departments so that the planning system can remove what has essentially been a de facto ban in England, and create a positive planning framework for all forms of renewable energy so that this move can make a real difference,” they added.