Party conferences are strange beasts. Thousands of stakeholders convening in one place, all in a hectic scramble to influence both serving & prospective governments. This year was no exception, but the question lingers: were they actually listening?
In 2022, the Carbon Capture & Storage Association (CCSA) attended the Labour & Conservative Party Conferences, adopting a modest approach to engagement. While we achieved some success, it was clear that neither Labour nor the Tories fully grasped the immense potential of Carbon Capture, Utilisation & Storage (CCUS) in achieving their net zero ambitions: creating and saving jobs across our industrial heartlands and boosting inward investment into our economy. Determined to be heard, we resolved to return with even greater vigour, waving the flag for CCUS.
This year, alongside colleagues from eight of the UK’s ever growing number of CCUS Industrial Clusters, we embarked on the most ambitious political engagement programme the UK CCUS industry has ever seen. With our collective aim in sight, we made our way to Manchester & Liverpool, to ensure that we captured the CCUS opportunity.
Here are some thoughts on what we saw.
Conservative Party Conference – One year in, has Rishi made his mark on a net zero energy sector?
In his net zero speech this summer, Sunak quoted the Climate Change Committee in saying “you don’t reach net zero simply by wishing it.” Yet despite finally seeing (severely delayed) progress to the CCS deployment in the UK, it is fair to say that as we arrived in Manchester for what could potentially be the Conservatives’ last conference before a general election, we weren’t holding our breath for any bold moves from the PM.
Alas, the atmosphere in Manchester seemed somewhat downtrodden – the conference hall was hardly more than half full, seeing a cabinet minister was a rarity, and indeed many MPs simply didn’t attend at all. Was this really the pre-election conference of the UK’s traditional governing party?
Yet there was hope. MPs, party members and businesses alike were significantly more positive than they had been the year before in the dying days of the Truss administration. While not everything was rosy for those wearing blue rosettes (cancelling HS2 whilst in Manchester might not have been the smartest move), there was a clear ambition to ‘get the job done’ in transitioning to net zero. We heard this first-hand when Claire Coutinho MP, the recently appointed Secretary of State for Energy Security & Net Zero, visited our exhibition stand and reiterated the government’s commitment to CCUS and rollout of four CCUS Industrial Clusters by 2030.
The Conservative messaging on net zero was confusing, to say the least. We must not forget what this government has already delivered in establishing the UK as a CCUS leader, with four clusters in development, the biggest piece of energy legislation in over a decade, and £20bn earmarked for the development of CCUS technology. The Tories have put in the hard graft in delivering these enormous milestones, and I’d urge the Prime Minister to stay on course, get spades in the ground and take the credit the Party rightly deserves.
Labour Party Conference – Ready for power, but are they ready to deliver a just transition?
Arriving in Liverpool we felt a different energy in the air. This is a party that can see the finish line in sight and exuded confidence going into the next election. With over 15,000 delegates in attendance, the conference buzzed with energy. The CCSA stand welcomed visits from dozens of MPs, including Ed Miliband, Rachel Reeves, and the new Shadow Minister for Industry and Decarbonisation, Sarah Jones. It was clear by just skimming through the list of exhibitors and the dozens of fringe events that the big-ticket item of the conference was energy security and net zero. Forget ‘education, education, education’, 2023 was the year of ‘energy, energy, energy’.
While Labour proudly presented its plans for what many within the party deem to be the inevitable orientation of a Labour Government, a question loomed – were they going to have the courage to make their policies happen?
Labour spoke all the right words, but there is a lot of work to do. Alan Whitehead has been an obvious champion for the sector but as he comes toward the end of his parliamentary career, we will be looking to the shadow Energy and Business team to take up the mantle as Labour’s industrial decarbonisation champions. We had positive engagement with Ed Miliband, Johnny Reynolds and Sarah Young and will be looking to them to drive development of CCUS from within the Labour ranks.
If the Labour Party aspires to be the government that truly delivers the UK’s energy transition, they must surpass the government’s CCUS commitments and unleash the potential of our industrial heartlands.
Red or blue: the future looks bright for CCUS.
Party conferences are a double-edged sword for organisations trying to engage with political parties. They offer fantastic opportunities to connect with stakeholders, but also reveal the extent of competition for attention. Despite the political uncertainty and deployment challenges we face, we leave party conference season confident that CCUS remains a critical part of both major parties’ strategies for delivering a net zero Britain.