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Watt next for decarbonisation?

24 August 2017

It is now all but certain that the UK will miss its 2020 interim emission reduction targets for heat and transport. But Phillip Pascall says that there's hope.

Watt next for decarbonisation?
Image credit: Shutterstock

The election result combined with Brexit are causing greater uncertainty in the political arena, which may have negative effects for continuing decarbonisation.

UK energy policy gap

UK energy policy has been sparse for some time.

The only policy paper shown on the BEIS website as issued in the last two years is the government’s response to the 2016 report of the Committee on Climate Change (Committee on Climate Change's 2016 progress report: Government response, BEIS, October 2016).

The 2016 CCC report drew attention to 24 areas requiring new or stronger policies and identified a widening policy gap (i.e. lack of funded policies to meet a cost-effective path of emissions reductions) to 2032; present plans are insufficient to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (2016 CCC Progress Report Executive Summary, CCC, June 2016).

DECC energy projections
Figure from ‘Meeting Carbon Budgets – 2016 Progress Report to Parliament’, CCC, June 2016

Government emissions reduction plans need to be published

In the response noted above, the government said that it was developing its emissions reduction plan. Publication, initially expected by the end of 2016, is awaited; a green paper ‘Building our Industrial Strategy’ published in January 2017 stated: “We will publish our Emissions Reduction Plan during 2017, providing long-term certainty for investors” (HMG January 2017).

The CCC also published a report ‘UK climate action following the Paris Agreement’.

The primary conclusions are that the UK does not need new emissions targets now but does need to pursue measures vigorously to deliver on existing commitments; options are also needed to remove greenhouse gases from the air (CCC October 2016).

Overarching emissions strategy also needed

In a report ‘Driving down emissions: How to clean up road transport?’, the think tank Policy Exchange says that the government’s approach to tackling road transport emissions has been disjointed and insufficient, and that there is no overarching government strategy to deliver the required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The report also contains important policy recommendations for government (Policy Exchange, June 2017).

Plans should cover likely behaviour changes

The implications of intermittency, highly distributed generating sources (for example approaching one million solar panel installations in UK), growth in numbers of electric vehicles, and other changes that arise from switching from fossil fuels to renewables need to be addressed within future planning too, of course.

 Different scenarios should be analysed to determine feasible, effective and economic pathways. Plans must include the behavioural changes on which decarbonisation may depend.

In the present context of a minority government attempting to prepare for Brexit negotiations, energy policy and decarbonisation are unlikely to be uppermost in the minds of UK politicians.

Worldwide picture for climate change commitments

G20 countries may be backtracking on funding commitments to combat climate change, encouraging development banks to raise funds instead (G-20 Poised to Signal Retreat From Climate-Change Funding Pledge, Bloomberg, March 2017).

President Trump’s declaration that the USA will withdraw from the Paris Agreement is likely to have a negative impact on the Paris Agreement, particularly its funding commitments. And the EU is watering down commitments to energy efficiency (Revised Energy Efficiency Directive, EPRS March 2017).

Some good news in decarbonisation

Thankfully, we do not need to be entirely despondent. There are snippets of good news most days; here is a small selection (one source is

Reports on carbon emission reductions and new records for renewable generation crop up frequently.

For example, the European Environment Agency has just published a report showing that the UK had the largest reduction of GHG emissions of all EU states in 2015 by a substantial margin (UK leads the way on emissions reductions, despite overall increase across the EU,EDIE, June 2016) - though much of this is due to closure of coal fired power stations so is a bit of a ‘one-off’.

CHange in greenhouse gas emissions


Figure from UK leads the way on emissions reductions, despite overall increase across the EU, EDIE, June 2016

The aggregate installed capacity of PV solar panels and offshore wind turbines continues to grow as the capital cost and the price of the electricity generated continue to come down.

On 7 June 2017, more than half of Great Britain’s electricity demand was being met by renewable sources for about an hour.

Cheapening energy storage is good news for balancing renewables’ intermittency

The cost of storage also continues to fall; numerous installations of some tens of megawatts may not be all that far over the horizon – literally, if a plan by Dong Energy to install batteries on an offshore windfarm becomes commonplace (DONG Energy to launch battery solution at offshore windfarm, Dong June 2017).

It’s small beer but BEIS is to invest £246M “to ensure the UK leads the world in the design, development and manufacture of batteries for the electrification of vehicles” in support of clean and flexible energy (Business Secretary announces Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund investments, BEIS,April 2017).

Electric vehicles are spreading

By the end of 2016 there were more than two million electric vehicles worldwide, an increase of about ¾ million in the year (Electric vehicles have another record year, reaching 2 million cars in 2016, IEA, June 2017).

This is good news also in the context of pollution in cities.

Perversely, one might even venture that pollution in cities is good in that it is now a major driver in favour of switching from fossil fuel, especially diesel, to ‘green’ vehicles.

For example, all new black cabs in London will have to be battery powered from the beginning of 2018.

That China accounts for 40% of world-wide sales of electric vehicles may well be influenced by pollution in its cities.

The Green Investment Bank, although now sold to Macquarie, is to invest £3bn over three years into the ‘green economy’ - appropriately the chairman of GIB is Lord Smith of Kelvin (Green Investment Bank to boost support for low carbon projects as government confirms sale to Macquarie, HMG, April 2017).

In the USA, several states, senators, mayors (even of Pittsburgh, noted for coal mining and energy intensive industries) and chief executives of large businesses opposed President Trump’s intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement, citing the pursuit of clean energy bringing benefits to business and economic (e.g. see Trump Is Hearing Plenty About the Paris Climate Deal. Who Will Have the Last Word?, NYT, May 2017.)

Spreading the Carbon = Cost mantra

PAS 2080:2016 Carbon Management in Infrastructure provides an excellent methodology for reducing whole life carbon.

It shows that targets are manageable and achievable and, most importantly, that cutting carbon cuts cost.

In helping to develop the specification, Anglian Water did just that (The Green Construction Board launches new standard on Carbon Management in Infrastructure, Green Construction Board, May 2016 and Cut carbon to cut costs, ICE, June 2016).

That decarbonisation reduces cost and provides opportunities for investment and growth is a recurring theme in many articles.

Net zero carbon a possibility by 2060

Last of these few examples is that the International Energy Agency says that global emissions can be pushed down to “net zero” by 2060, though it requires “unprecedented policy action”.

The means include ‘negative emissions’ from bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (Energy Technology Perspectives 2017, IEA June 2017 and IEA: World can reach ‘net zero’ emissions by 2060 to meet Paris climate goals, Carbon Brief, June 2017).

How do we ensure continued progress towards decarb targets?

There is no need for despondency but we do need a plan.

Whilst many of those opposing Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement said that they would continue to pursue carbon reduction, they also made clear that Government leadership and example was vital.

The IEA, in the report mentioned above, similarly makes clear that governments should develop a vision, that international collaboration needs to be advanced, that policy support for technology is required, and that policy, finance and market mechanisms must be adapted to support new business models.

In the UK we seek clear and consistent policy and planning. The UK took the initiative with the Climate Change Act 2008.

The government then produced The Carbon Plan, 2050 Pathways and Carbon Budgets for five-year periods to 2032.

But there remains the ‘policy gap’ referred to above because there is currently a lack of clarity, consistency and support in many areas seen as important to achieving targets.

I would urge government to extend the excellent work represented in the above document urgently.

Plans must be based on evidence and analysis, most likely using the 2050 Pathways calculator, to develop plans and policies that will lead to achievements of the targets.

Rather than take further time to refine plans amidst uncertainty, they must be adaptable, in prescribed and foreseeable ways, to changing circumstances and rates of progress.

  • Philip Pascall, retired civil engineer & member of ICE