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Young people are demanding high-speed decarbonisation - the government needs to deliver

26 March 2019

Danny Bonnett, an ICE Energy Panel member and father of a youth climate striker in Bristol, outlines how the UK can lead the race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Young people are demanding high-speed decarbonisation - the government needs to deliver
Youth Strikes 4 Climate gave government complete mandate and obligation for urgent decarbonisation of the UK economy. Image credit: Shutterstock

On Friday 15 February 2019, BBC local news programmes in the UK widely reported on the Youth climate strikes in the UK.

Claire Perry MP, Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, featured in the footage, saying that while "we know we’ve got to do more. We’ve all got to do more ...". She added that the UK was leading the G20 for decarbonisation, as measured in a 40% reduction of emissions since 1990.

She's correct that we need to do more, and we need to progress faster. The young people striking on the 15th were asking for the UK government to declare a climate emergency due to the need for such a huge societal change in such a short period of time.

UK energy and mandate for change

What we've been doing successfully in the UK is decarbonising our electricity grid.

There are several reasons behind this, but one particularly relevant is that over the last 15 years there's been sustained policy pressure, in the same direction.

This has caused a low-carbon industry to grow, and included technology development, skills for project permitting, financing and law, engineering management, and so on.

This has resulted in good progress to reduce carbon, excellent green jobs, and a model for us to replicate and build on.

However, in every other significant sector, progress has been remarkably slow. I speak of agriculture or land use, transport and heating in particular.

We all understand that government needs a mandate to make significant changes, or to drive policy in a certain direction.

This is what the youth strikes were now giving to the UK government.

It's clear there's a significant green jobs lobby in the UK. There's always been a sector of the population vocal on environmental matters, headed up by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and countless more campaigning charities.

Within society at large we see broad groups such as Grandparents for a Safe Earth, and recently Extinction Rebellion, campaigning hard for urgent action. Surveys also show broad and deep support for action on climate change.

So the UK government has a mandate to act.

High-speed decarbonisation - one way we can achieve it

The task is immense, and the most positive response to this challenge will be for UK government to actually lead the world in high-speed decarbonisation as they often claim we are.

This is how to do it:

We should take no more steps in the wrong direction.

  • No more fossil fuel exploration, and no unconventional fossil fuels (e.g. oil from tar sands or fracked gas)
  • No more low-quality, energy-wasteful new homes
  • No further airport expansion in the UK until zero carbon aviation is a reality
  • No more delays and funding cuts for rail electrification

Next, we re-focus new electricity generation capacity on renewables, considering especially the lead times required to meet our carbon budgets as electricity demand rises from transport and heating.

In my mind, this means no nuclear after Hinckley Point C, but a robust strategy should follow expert advice from the likes of the National Infrastructure Commission and the Committee on Climate Change.

100% renewables - how?

An economy powered 100% with renewable energy is possible with sufficient planning to install the mechanisms that allow us to manage the diverse generation profiles. These five pillars are:

  • Diversity of generation technology (e.g. solar, tidal, wind, ground source heat, etc)
  • Geographical distribution of generation and storage assets (closer to the population, and smoothing humps from generation)
  • Interconnection between regions, and neighbours (allowing import and export of excesses, and further smoothing of supply)
  • Energy storage for electricity, and for green gas, and for heat (batteries, compressed air, pumped storage, hydrogen stores, thermal stores)
  • Demand-side management through implementation of industrial scale technologies and user-agreements, and domestic scale mechanisms, such as smart-tech freezers and washing machines, vehicle-to-home power supplies, and time-of-use tariffs for commercial and domestic electricity customers

The above pillars would be implemented alongside a continuous commitment to increase energy efficiency and policy pressure to decarbonise.

As per my comment relating to nuclear power, a key element to such a strategy is that it's translated from vision to specific policies and measures by an expert and apolitical advisory group, ensuring that the drivers are genuine and democratic, that the outcomes will be equitable and affordable, and that the requisite timetable is met.

Principles for heating and transport decarbonisation

Other specific actions relating to transport and home heating, that will yield significant results at minimal cost to government are:

  • To bring forward the date after which internal combustion engine cars will no longer be sold, to 2025. (Bear in mind a modern car should last for 15 years, and the planet, not just the UK, needs to zero carbon by 2050). This will drive a substantial home market for electric cars, encouraging manufacturers to serve this market with UK-based manufacturing
  • To reinstate the carbon floor price escalator, making sure that UK industry will lead the way in low carbon technology development
  • Bring back the Building Regulations escalator that would, by now, be making sure that every new home built was fit for ‘zero-carbon living’. This was abandoned due to house-builder lobbying of government, to the detriment of anyone who moves into a new home
  • Both transport and home heating can be electrified and serviced with green gas/ hydrogen. The final split should again be determined by experts within these fields, based on the criteria outlined above

Education for the great energy transition

Finally, the youth strikers were also asking for the national curriculum to be modified to better address climate science.

I’d add to that, saying that training of the population is critical with the various skills needed for the transition, if we are to stand the best chance of achieving the speed of transformation that's needed, and more positively, if we want to reap the maximum rewards for our green economy.

Call for action

I really hope that the UK government can reassure me that they understand that ‘leading the world in a slow race’ is not good enough, and that now is the time for long-term meaningful action.

The UK is blessed with a whole host of expertise we can we draw upon to make an economy-wide plan to deliver the high-speed decarbonisation our young people are demanding.

I await the UK government’s response on this, the most important matter facing humans today. I’ll happily assist in any way I can.

  • Danny Bonnett, ICE Fellow &Energy Panel member