Government projections fall short of climate change targets

This week’s release of new ‘Energy and Emissions Projections’ from the government highlights some major concerns with the UK’s electricity policies.

Jimmy Aldridge is a researcher at IPPR

This week’s release of new ‘Energy and Emissions Projections’ from the government highlights some major concerns with the UK’s electricity policies. Critically, it suggests that Britain is off course to achieve its legally binding climate change targets.

Unabated Gas

The 2008 Climate Change Act commits the UK to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions against 1990 levels by at least 34 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. The Committee on Climate Change has stated that meeting the 2050 emissions reduction target “will only be achievable if electricity generation is almost completely decarbonised by 2030”.

The level of gas-fired generation projected by DECC in the electricity mix in 2030 (shown below) would make this requirement impossible. In addition, given the central role that gas prices have played in driving up electricity bills over the last ten years, this is extremely concerning for consumers.

Since claims that UK shale gas could drive down energy prices have been widely discredited, tying the UK into this volume of gas generation risks further rises in electricity bills.

Graph climate

Carbon Capture and Storage

The DECC projections indicate that two CCS facilities will come online in 2018 and it assumes that CCS technology will be commercially available by 2025. This is extremely optimistic given that the two projects planned to be online by 2018 are demonstration plants and it is unusual for any demonstration facility to perform on a commercial basis.

Even if these facilities exceed expectations, recent research has highlighted six significant uncertainties for CCS including construction risk, high capital costs and the difficulties of finding storage facilities for the captured carbon.

Nuclear Power

DECC’s figures show a large and increasing contribution from nuclear power. Their Nuclear Industrial Strategy highlights plans for 12 new nuclear reactors by 2030.

Again, this is extremely optimistic given the huge capital investment required to develop nuclear facilities, the difficulty the government is currently having in negotiating an acceptable deal with nuclear operators , and the well documented overruns and overspend of recent nuclear development in France and Finland.

Investment in Renewables

A huge increase in renewable capacity from today’s levels is also projected. Although admirable, this will require a level of capital investment that the current policy framework does not inspire.

IPPR research has shown that the existing policy framework does not yet provide the certainty or aspiration that investors require to deliver the investment that government want to see.

These new figures not only show the damaging carbon implications of UK energy policy, but also the huge uncertainties that exist around the low-carbon generation that government expects to be delivered.

Some of these issues could be addressed with more stable policy that gives a clear signal of government intention such as the setting of a decarbonisation target for the power sector by 2030.

But it is also crucial that government focuses on the significant opportunity for reducing energy demand through energy efficiency. As new work by IPPR will show, this, more than anything else, would cut bills, reduce carbon emissions, provide jobs, and fill the gap left when generation capacity does not deliver on expectations.

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One Response to “Government projections fall short of climate change targets”

  1. Repeal the Act!


    The IPCC’s ‘inconvenient truth’ — a pause in surface warming for the past 15+ years

    Publication of the IPCC AR4 in 2007 was received with international acclaim. The vaunted IPCC process – multitudes of experts from over a hundred countries over a period of four years, examining thousands of refereed journal publications, with hundreds of expert reviewers – elevated the authority of the IPCC AR4 to near biblical heights. Journalists jumped on board, and even the oil and energy companies neared capitulation. The veneration culminated with the Nobel Peace Prize, which the IPCC was awarded jointly with Al Gore. At the time, I joined the consensus in supporting this document as authoritative: I bought into the meme of “don’t trust what one scientist says; rather trust the consensus building process of the IPCC experts.”

    Six and a half years later and a week before the release of the IPCC 5thAssessment Report (AR5), substantial criticisms are being made of leaked versions of the Report as well as of the IPCC process itself. IPCC insiders are bemoaning their loss of their scientific and political influence. What happened?

    The IPCC was seriously tarnished by the unauthorized release of emails from the University of East Anglia in November 2009, known as Climategate. These emails revealed the ‘sausage making’ involved in the IPCC’s consensus building process, including denial of data access to individuals who wanted to audit their data processing and scientific results, interference in the peer review process to minimize the influence of skeptical criticisms, and manipulation of the media. Climategate was quickly followed by the identification of an egregious error involving the melting of Himalayan glaciers. These revelations were made much worse by the actual response of the IPCC to these issues. Then came the concerns about the behavior of the IPCC’s Director, Rachendra Pachauri, and investigations of the infiltration of green advocacy groups into the IPCC. All of this was occurring against a background of explicit advocacy and activism by IPCC leaders related to CO2 mitigation policies.

    The IPCC does not seem to understand the cumulative impact of these events on the loss of trust in climate scientists and the IPCC process itself. The IPCC’s consensus building process relies heavily on expert judgment; if the public and the policy makers no longer trust these particular experts, then we can expect a very different dynamic to be in play with regards to the reception of the AR5 relative to the AR4.

    But there is another more vexing dilemma facing the IPCC. Since publication of the AR4, nature has thrown the IPCC a ‘curveball’ — there has been no significant increase in global average surface temperature for the past 15+ years.

    Based upon early drafts of the AR5, the IPCC seemed prepared to dismiss the pause in warming as irrelevant ‘noise’ associated with natural variability. Under pressure, the IPCC now acknowledges the pause and admits that climate models failed to predict it. The IPCC has failed to convincingly explain the pause in terms of external radiative forcing from greenhouse gases, aerosols, solar or volcanic forcing; this leaves natural internal variability as the predominant candidate to explain the pause. If the IPCC attributes to the pause to natural internal variability, then this begs the question as to what extent the warming between 1975 and 2000 can also be explained by natural internal variability. Not to mention raising questions about the confidence that we should place in the IPCC’s projections of future climate change.

    Nevertheless, the IPCC appears to be set to conclude that warming in the near future will resume in accord with climate model predictions.

    Why is my own reasoning about the implications of the pause, in terms of attribution of the late 20th century warming and implications for future warming, so different from the conclusions drawn by the IPCC? The disagreement arises from different assessments of the value and importance of particular classes of evidence as well as disagreement about the appropriate logical framework for linking and assessing the evidence – my reasoning is weighted heavily in favor of observational evidence and understanding of natural internal variability of the climate system, whereas the IPCC’s reasoning is weighted heavily in favor of climate model simulations and external forcing of climate change.

    Scientists do not need to be consensual to be authoritative. Authority rests in the credibility of the arguments, which must include explicit reflection on uncertainties, ambiguities and areas of ignorance and more openness for dissent. I have recommended that the scientific consensus seeking process be abandoned in favor of a more traditional review that presents arguments for and against, discusses the uncertainties, and speculates on the known and unknown unknowns.

    The growing implications of the messy wickedness of the climate change problem are becoming increasingly apparent. Lets abandon the scientific consensus seeking approach in favor of open debate and discussion of a broad range of policy options that stimulate local and regional solutions to the multifaceted and interrelated issues surrounding climate change.

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