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COP 21: UK policy versus UK ambition

How the Palace of Westminster, seat of UK government, would look following a further 2°C rise in temperature, with the lower floors of the iconic Houses of Parliament submerged by the swelling River Thames. Image: Courtesy of Climate Central.
During the discussions at the Conference of the Parties 21 (COP 21), in Paris 2015, the UK Government had a strongly stated position of delivering an international agreement that kept global temperature rise to below 2°C. The “Paris Agreement” has settled on limiting temperature rise to less than 2°C by 2100 (so a success), with a preferred position of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C, to limit the impact of sea level rise on small island nations. The UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, has said that the Agreement is a compromise and as such is not “a perfect deal” and the reason for the lack of perfection is that while 195 nations have signed up to the “Paris Agreement”, cutting emissions of greenhouse gases is not legally binding. However in order to deliver limited temperature rise emissions must come down and come down very soon.

Carbon dioxide reached global levels of greater than 400 ppm this year – a level that many climate scientists, myself included, said would lead to significant global change. Furthermore, the rate that we humans are putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is increasing, rather than decreasing, and at current rates levels will be close to 580 ppm in 2100 and would result in a temperature increase double that signed up to in Paris.

Now the UK, unlike many other countries, has a binding self-set target to reduce carbon emissions. We are on track to meet the third carbon budget, but meeting the targets of the fourth and fifth carbon budgets will be challenging. The good news is that Amber Rudd has announced the closure of all coal-fired power stations by 2020. This is important as electricity generation is the UK’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but against this clearly laudable decision sits the decision to promote exploration for shale gas, the hoped for construction of gas-fired power stations and the ending of incentives for renewable generation.

UK secretary of state for energy and climate change, Amber Rudd, tours a large-scale energy storage facility. Image: Younicos.
Let’s accept that the increasing construction of diesel generator farms to provide security of supply in winter is an unintended consequence of earlier policies that Amber Rudd inherited and we can hope that steps will be taken to halt the development of these farms. If Amber Rudd doesn’t halt them, then local communities appear unwilling to support the arrival of dirty polluting and noisy generators in their midst and are successfully using the planning process to stop developments.

Let’s also accept that the assertion that renewable generation, particularly solar PV, doesn’t need support anymore since there are plenty of projects already in the pipeline and costs have come down sufficiently such that projects will “just happen” anyway. But our electricity networks are struggling to find the space to connect more renewable generation anyway and without proper thought about how to efficiently deliver the low carbon energy system, we run the risk of cutting costs now to meet Chancellor George Osborne’s exacting fiscal targets, but spending more in the long run.

The Government have cancelled carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, which is a wise decision since the electricity from gas power stations fitted with carbon capture and storage would be four times more expensive than electricity from unmodified gas power stations! But the development of industries and power stations that depend on the burning of fossil fuels, such as gas and shale gas, result in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The community of Balcombe, a small village in the south of England which hit headlines when attempts to drill for shale were met with forceful protests, recently opted instead to go solar via a community scheme. JIll Cainey hopes that plans to deploy diesel generators will meet similar community-based opposition. Image: Balcombe facebook page.
How do these policies help to deliver either the UK’s carbon budgets or indeed the “Paris Agreement”? There appears to be a huge gap between policy and ambition and the missing piece of information is how all of these recent policy decisions will halt climate change.

Flexibility is the key, both in policy and in the energy system. Electricity storage hasn’t received any incentives and heat storage is the unloved cousin of electricity storage.  There is already a potential 30GWh of flexibility installed on the UK electricity system in the form of electrically heated hot water tanks – all they need is a “smart widget” that would allow that flexibility to be accessed by the system, earning a little money for householders and creating a new business in the process. The government are very good at supporting innovation and there have been a number of exciting electricity storage projects delivered by its Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), but we need deployment support as flexibility is badly needed on the system today.

Prime minister David Cameron recently said: “…we are spending the money on innovation, on energy storage, on small nuclear reactors, and on other things such as energy heat systems for local communities that will make a difference. To govern is to choose, and we made the right choice.”

There is no doubt that there is a lot of original thinking around energy in Government, but have they made the right choice with shale gas and gas, to ensure that we have an energy system that is secure, low cost and that addresses carbon emissions? If the wrong choice has been made then the negative consequences are significant and we should remember that we are a small island nation and that being in the North Atlantic, rather than the South Pacific, is no protection against sea level rise. Events of the past few weeks, which have seen northern England flooded and billions of pounds worth of damage done to homes and businesses, as well as the distress and disruption caused, are a stark reminder of the pressing need to adapt to our changing climate. Those that work in the UK's corridors of power in Westminster should be more concerned than most about getting their feet wet.


The government are very good at supporting innovation and there have been a number of exciting electricity storage projects delivered by its Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), but we need deployment support as flexibility is badly needed on the system today."

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