Over the weekend, the government quietly asphyxiated its climate change policy with a gas attack. Ministers announced that gas-fired power stations would be permitted to continue emitting carbon dioxide at levels similar to today – all the way out to 2045.
“We can’t take our foot off the gas for some time yet,” declared energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey. The phrase will surely come to define Davey, though not in ways he will appreciate.
In giving his support to a new generation of gas plants, he has given succour to a cadre of reactionaries aching to undermine the UK’s nascent renewables industry, and opened the floodgates for a second dash for gas. The move simply cannot be squared with meeting the UK’s carbon targets.
Let’s take a look at the figures. The government’s new policy is to introduce an Emissions Performance Standard for all new power plants of 450g CO2 per kWh of electricity generated. At such a level, all new coal is ruled out – unless it is built with (as-yet untested) Carbon Capture and Storage technology. So far, so good. But the limit still permits gas generation, which tends to emit at around 400g/kWh.
Fair enough: we still need a decent quantity of gas plant onstream to keep providing power, make up for a shortfall as various coal and nuclear plants are retired over the coming decade, and to balance out variable renewables.
But here’s the rub: “power stations consented under the 450g/kWh-based level would then be subject to that level until 2045,” states the DECC press release. No new limits; no tightening of the cap over time; no obligation to fit CCS retrospectively. How does this fit with the UK’s climate targets?
Short answer: it doesn’t. Under the Climate Act, the government is committed to reducing UK emissions by 34% by 2020, and by 80% by 2050. In order to remain on that downward trajectory, the independent Committee on Climate Change recommends the power generation sector virtually decarbonises by 2030. There are various possible routes to achieving this, through different mixes of renewables, nuclear and fossil CCS.
But it certainly can’t be achieved by permitting any significant amount of gas plant to continue emitting unabated.
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Trouble is, there’s a shedload of unabated gas plants currently being built. A new Friends of the Earth report shows 9GW of gas plant is likely to be built by 2016, whilst Bloomberg New Energy Finance reckon 11GW will be built by that date. Gas plants typically have a lifespan of 25 years, so all of this will continue operating into the early 2040s.
And now that the government has given the green light, there is nothing to stop them all still emitting at the same levels as today.
The result will be to blow apart any serious hope of decarbonising the power sector. The Committee on Climate Change advises that the entire power sector emit no more than 20Mt CO2 per year by 2030. But Bloomberg anticipate around 125,000 MWh of Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plant to still be operating in 2030 – which, if consented under the government’s proposed emissions limits, would be emitting around 56Mt CO2 annually.
Taking that path, we are locking ourselves into a high-carbon electricity system and veering way off course from a clean energy future.
The government may protest that this additional gas plant will be only used intermittently in future, to compensate for when variable renewable capacity isn’t generating. Or maybe the gas plants are all scheduled to be retrofitted with CCS. Or perhaps the government hasn’t planned for either of these eventualities, assuming that ‘the market will provide’.
As Green Alliance have shown, this laissez-faire approach will mean having to mothball £10bn worth of plant by 2030, raising the price of energy.
Even the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, who have been gunning to slash the UK’s renewables targets and let rip instead with shale gas, admit:
“In the latter years of its expected life span, gas generation might be switched to a reduced role providing dispatchable peaking capacity, be retrofitted with CCS if the technology is successful, or ‘stranded’.”
Davey’s decision looks all the worse coming after months of lobbying by a Treasury increasingly antithetical to green policy, and by a hardened cadre of anti-wind, climate sceptic, pro-gas advocates – including the shale gas booster Matt Ridley, and that veteran of energy sector liberalisation, Lord Lawson.
Coupled with an utterly misguided Daily Mail campaign blaming high fuel bills on green taxes – when spiralling gas prices have been to blame – and beguiling but also misguided whispers of a domestic shale gas bonanza, the government seems to have been bought off by special interests.
Back in September last year, then energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne vowed:
“We will not consent so much gas plant so as to endanger our carbon dioxide goals.”
Huhne, of course, is now in court for speeding offences – and his successor has performed a handbrake turn, putting his foot to the floor on a new gas-guzzling policy of extraordinary folly.
As the government opens its consultation on the matter in coming weeks, it’s time to protest loudly – and hope we can slam the brakes on this gas-powered juggernaut.