Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Spooks, wonks, pols, profs and other climate groupies

Since returning from the US on 18 September I've attended two meetings on energy and climate change.

The first, convened by the Westminster Energy Forum with RUSI on 19 September, was not overwhelming. Attendees have been asked not communicate what was said, but there was little new.

Valerie Caton, Director, Energy Security and Climate Change at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, summarised some UK government activity including the Global Opportunities Fund at her own department. I'm not divulging any secrets to say that one GOF energy effiency project with the Kaliningrad municipality showed a four fold return on investment within one year (invest $25,000, save $100,000: a 400% return per annum virtually risk free - text book Amory Lovins stuff). Russia holds the G8 presidency next year, and is choosing energy security as a key issue.

Robert Casamento, Head of Climate Change at Deloitte, showed more caution on nuclear power than I would have guessed. Christophe-Alexandre Paillard, from the Strategic Affairs Directorate at the French Ministry of Defence, was very good - direct and darkly funny - on regional energy security hotspots and the geopolitics of oil, but had far too little time allocated.

The second conference (earlier today, 21 Sep) launched Decarbonising the UK, a multi year study from the Tyndall Centre on how UK emissions can be cut by 60% by 2050. There was some quality here. I won't attempt to go into it now, except to note a first rate overview of the study from Kevin Anderson and an illuminating discussion between David King and attendees on political realism and being direct and effective about what the science says. And in his introduction, Elliot Morley was surprisingly OK - some plausible sounding words at least on the need to change the tax system and improve regulation, and caution on the costs of nuclear.

Earlier in the morning, the media (even Five Live!, noted Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace) had picked up on a key observation from the study - that everyone's carbon emissions in the UK will have to go to zero to allow for aviation growth and still meet the 60% target. This is a start, but misses the larger point that it must not be too long before we embrace a 90% target. Will Tyndall do the work? I had to leave early so don't know the answer yet. (A wild guess - "yes, if you pay us".)

On 12 September I wrote a piece on impacts of energy technologies for a supplement on energy to appear in the 23[?] September New Statesmen (to coincide with the Labour Party Conference). It's not great (written while on the run in the US); but I think it's useful as it looks at next steps as and where business, the NGO sector and others are on the same page (see, for example, George Monbiot and respondents).

In preview, a draft of my piece is attached as a comment to this post.

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

The future of energy in the UK – crisis or renewal?

Up a creek and looking for a paddle

What the environmental impacts of different means of energy production. What is the best mix one can reasonably hope for in the future. How are government and industry performing in meeting those goals, and what is the role for communities and individuals?

If you are in a canoe heading towards the top of a large waterfall the first thing to do is to stop paddling towards it.

The United Kingdom is paddling towards the top of a waterfall.

Virtually all serious scientists and governments agree that climate change presents the most serious environmental challenge humanity faces. We have to cut greenhouse gases emissions.

UK emissions rose by 2.5% in the first six months of the 2005 and by around 5.5% since Labour came to power in 1997.

To meet the UK’s international legally binding obligation under the Kyoto Protocol (a 12.5% cut on 1990 levels by 2008-12), emissions need to be falling by at least 1% a year – and faster than that to meet the government’s self-declared target of 20% by 2010. A cut of 90% or more is probably necessary within a few decades at most.

Every form of energy generation – including renewables like wind, solar and biomass – has environmental impacts. But some are much worse than others. Top of the list for greenhouse gas generation are the “fossil fuels” coal, oil and gas in that order. (Nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gas at the point of energy generation, raises various environmental and other concerns including an unsolved waste storage problem, much higher capital costs than fossil fuel generation, high unfunded liabilities, vulnerability to terror attacks and proliferation risks.)

The good news is that there are unprecedented opportunities in the UK now and for the next few years to grab the paddles and start moving in the right direction. But it won’t happen without citizen action, active government and market-creating innovation by commercial interests.

The challenges are many and complex but some, at least, go roughly like this:

• Nuclear power stations provide a bit less than a quarter of UK electricity. Within five years or so a third them will have reached the end of their operational lives and will be closed. The nuclear share of power generation will be about 16% - unless new plants are built or more nuclear-generated electricity is imported from France or elsewhere.

• Natural gas is likely to provide 60% of UK electricity by 2010, up from about 40% today. Gas is a lot cleaner than coal, but it emits carbon dioxide, and as it will be replacing nuclear generation total UK emissions will increase – unless other measures are taken. What’s more, by 2010 the UK will be importing around half its gas requirements.

• Coal is not going to go away. It is too cheap for people to resist. It remains an important part of the UK energy mix, and is even more important in countries with which the UK trades.

• Renewable energy provides about 3% of power today. Government targets says this share needs to be 10% by 2010 and 20% by 2020, but the way things are going those targets are going to be very hard to reach.

• Transport is by far the fastest growing form of energy consumption. It already accounts for more than a third of total emissions (57 million tonnes of oil equivalent out of a total of 161m in 2004). Aviation, the fastest growing form of transport, is a particular challenge.

• The UK, with less than 1% of world population, produces about 2% of global emissions. It needs to drastically reduce those. At the same time, unless other countries with more rapidly growing energy demand – especially the big ones like the US, China and India – address the issue too then any gains the UK makes will be rapidly eclipsed by pollution from other sources. And the climate doesn’t care where emissions originate.

New technologies that generate power more cleanly are essential. But they are not the right place to start framing an agenda for action. The right frame is more intelligent use of energy.

Consider an analogy with heart disease. Treatment for the symptoms should not be neglected; but it is more beneficial and cost effective to work on prevention in the first place by reducing consumption of harmful substances and improving lifestyles.

High and growing energy consumption is like heart disease. Using energy more intelligently deals with root causes and creates more opportunities and wealth. For example, manufacturing efficient lamps and thermally efficient windows requires up to one thousand times less capital than building power plants and grids to provide equivalent utility, and the investment is recovered ten times faster.

According to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in the US, a basic misunderstanding skews the entire climate debate. Both those concerned about climate change and so-called “skeptics” (more accurately, “denialists”) are wrong to see action as costly:

“If properly done, climate protection would actually reduce costs, not raise them. Using energy more efficiently offers an economic bonanza--not because of the benefits of stopping global warming but because saving fossil fuel is a lot cheaper than buying it.”

How does this translate on the ground in the UK, or for that matter in the air above it? Here are a few pointers:

• Central government. The rhetoric of the G8 summit in July 2005 has yet to deliver. Government has an important role to play in promoting new technologies. To some extent it recognises this with recent initiatives such as partnerships for “clean” coal and carbon capture and storage in China and India (that coal is going to be burnt come hell or high water; UK know-how can help mitigate the effects) . But this is not enough. An energy-intelligent economy is inextricable from the much trumpeted “knowledge-economy” needed to survive in the 21st century, and government needs to make it a basic national priority. The entire tax system must increasingly favour more efficient use of energy, and particular attention should be paid to how the benefits of more intelligent energy use can be realised for people on low incomes.

• Business and the investment community. In May 2005 the leaders of thirteen major UK and international companies wrote to the Prime Minister arguing the need for a step-change in the development of low-carbon goods and services. “To achieve this”, they wrote, “we need a strong policy framework [from government] that creates a long-term value for carbon emissions reductions and consistently supports and incentivises the development of new technologies”. Fine and dandy. But business needs to be held to its pledges too and not get off Scot free when it breaks them. So, for example, an “sustainable aviation initiative”, which pledges to reduce emissions per seat kilometre by half by 2020 must come under sustained, relentless but not necessarily hostile scrutiny by independent actors.

• Parliament. Select Committees can do a lot more to examine the options and weed out false positives, facile optimism and government backsliding. Notable among them are the Commons Environmental Audit and Science and Technology Committees, which from this month [September] are investigating “nuclear versus renewables” and carbon capture and storage respectively. The way the question is framed in the first case is not especially helpful, but the Committees can provide important opportunities for learning for politicians and those who elect them. They and other parliamentarians would do well to look at the recommendations of the Lords Science and Technology Committee on Energy Efficiency back in July, which suggest some good markers for progress – if government and its partners will act on them.

• Local government. There is a lot creative and valuable work in the UK at the regional and local level. The London Climate Agency, which promotes energy efficiency and devolved power generation, is a good next step after congestion charging (which has reduced emissions, generated substantial additional funds for public transport and is proving influential worldwide). More gritty projects like Climate Neutral Newcastle are showing that saving the climate isn’t just for fancy southerners.

• Statutory bodies and agencies and others. Increased support for the likes of Carbon Trust (which works mainly with business) and the Energy Saving Trust (which works mainly with consumers) is much needed. Initiatives like Community Action for Energy from the Centre for Sustainable Energy need to be more widely studied and copied. Some other non commercial actors, including universities and foundations, are making excellent contributions including prizes for energy and sustainability technologies such as the Ashden Awards and the St Andrews Prize.

• NGOs. Stop climate chaos – a campaign launched at the beginning of this month [September] by a coalition of big voluntary and pressure groups – marks an important step forward. Like “Make Poverty History”, it has the resources breadth and, apparently, the determination to maintain pressure over a sustained period and affect public consciousness and behaviour. NGOs are the two ounce mice running around under the feet of the raging five hundred pound gorillas that are a high consumption society. But gorillas can be more sensitive than they appear and sometimes the smallest creatures make a difference.

Caspar Henderson was a commissioning editor at from 2002 to 2005, and edited its debate on the politics of climate change. His blog is at

Further reading

Letter from UK business leaders on climate change

More profit with less carbon - definitive reading on more intelligent energy use

The politics of climate change – global online debate brings together best thinking on the real challenges

Stop climate chaos – campaign by a coalition of major UK NGOs.

Sustainable Aviation UK - is this industry initiative too good to be true?