Surveys show that the public are deeply concerned by climate change and in the 2017 election a clear majority voted for parties calling for a reversal of the lukewarm response that has characterised government under the Conservatives. This illustrates how the dilution of Britain’s response to the challenge of global warming since 2015 has been made possible by an electoral system which fails to represent the wishes of the majority and encourages undue influence from private interests, such as the fossil fuel industry.
Morally and in practical terms there is an overwhelming case for Britain to take a lead in addressing global warming which, along with population growth, is probably the greatest threat facing humanity in the 21st century. Britain is particularly threatened because of the very real danger of a weakening in the North Atlantice drift resulting from the polar warming which could lead to a catastrophic fall in temperatures throughout Northern Europe. Reducing the release of fossil fuel gases from power generation, heating and transport is also essential because of their impact on health, with authoritative estimates indicating that such emissions are responsible for at least 30,000 premature deaths per year in the UK alone.
This raises the challenge of containing the growth in the demand for energy while at the same time developing and introducing new, clean technologies on a global scale, many of which have the potential to create sustainable jobs for the future. The Government is committed by the 2008 Climate Change Act to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels. While progess in the short term is on track, it currently appears extremely unlikely that the longer term objective will be achievable without a major change of approach.
The share of the UK’s energy that comes from renewable resoures has increased rapidly in recent years, but evidence of the rapid warming of the arctic in recent years shows that the policies of the Government and the Opposition are wholly inadequate to meet this challenge. The main reasons for this are: first, the high proportion of energy that is currently consumed in the form of gas for heating; second, the intermittent nature of solar and wind power and the near impossibility of building an adequate energy storage system within the necessary timescale; and, third, the political and financial obstacles that stand in the way of tidal and nuclear generation, which experience in Canada, France, and Switzerland suggests could play a key role in resolving this dilema.
A setback to tackling climate change
Following the replacement of the Coalition (which had a good record on climate change) by a Conservative administration in 2015 election, the Government backtracked on a number of important climate change commitments. This called in question Britain’s commitment to tackling global warming and its prospects for developing an internationally competitive renewable energy sector. It brought forward the phasing out the Climate Change Levy, which supports new renewable energy investment; it impeded the development of land-based wind generation, (currently the most cost effective technology); it held down petrol and diesel duty; it subsidisd the installation of diesel generators (a highly polluting response to the need to insure against peak demand shortages); and it severely reduced funding for the insulation of the most energy inefficient homes. These measures have clearly impeded plans for further investment in renewable energy and power storage solutions.
The most obvious immediate way to tackle climate change emissions is through measures to promote energy saving. Most media attention is focused on the switch to renewable power generation and the move away from fossil fuels in transport (which account for 40% of end user energy consumption). But to be effective, policy must also encompass the domestic sector (29%), industry (17%) and services (14%). Dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency in road and air transport have been achieved, but the opportunities for raising the efficiency of internal combustion are finite and the next big step forward is already underway with the move to electric propulsion as range and performance improves. Unless radically new technologies are developed, the growth in battery use is likely to run up against constraints in the availability of lithium and cobalt within a decade or two, but by that stage there are good prospects that fuel cell technology will have evolved as an alternative power source with different requirements in terms of materials.
While attention is largely focused on transport, the reality is that well over 50% of all energy consumed in the UK goes to heat and light domestic and business premises. This poses a problem for climate change policy; first, because Britain’s elderly housing stock is inefficient by European standards; and, second, because heating is generally individualised and based on a distribution infrastructure which would be enormously expensive to replace. For example, KPMG calculated in 2016 that replacing gas heating infrastructure by electricity would cost £300 billion. As a first step, considerable scope exisits for improvement through straightforward measures to encourage better insulation in older homes and by promoting the adoption of energy efficient designs in new commercial and domestic buildings.
In the short and medium term, very significant savings in energy consumption and in CO2 emissions could be achieved by promoting district heating schemes using energy from renewable sources, such as combined heat and power systems using waste materials as feedstock. This approach is being successfully pursued in Denmark, where 30% of energy currently goes to heat domestic buildings and district heating is being energetically expanded. The success of this strategy depends upon a favourable regulatory and funding environment and the engagement of local partners, including local authorities residents associations and social housing providers. For such a strategy to be effective in the UK, where almost all domestic heating is individualised, the concept of district heating will need to be actively promoted using public and community resources and comittment. Consideration should also be give to introducing a charge on waste heat to encourage the development of a market in heat and to provide a source of funding for the development of local district heating schemes.
Towards a hydrogen economy?
Beyond that, the best strategy could be to retain the gas distribution network, while replacing fossil natural gas by hydrogen (whose combustion products are water vapour and oxygen). Subject to a substantial increase in electricity output, this could be produced from water using electricity generated by wind, tidal power and nuclear fission at night, when domestic and business demand is low – an approach which would also help to optimise the use of generating capacity by smoothing the pattern of demand.
The case for a carbon tax
Energy consumption in industrial processes has declined steadily over the last half century, primarily as a result of the long term decline in energy-hungry manufacturing industry. Price is likely to be the most effective driver of further reductions. Unfortunately, inspired by right-wing small government ideology, the international community is now committed to a cumbersome and bureaucratic market-based system of carbon emissions trading as the primary stimulus for raising the cost of fossil fuels to large industrial emitters. A more effective and more easily enforceable means to cut industrial carbon dioxide emissions would be to introduce a carbon tax, a strategy whch as been successfully pioneered in Sweden and in California.
Re-shaping power generation
The variable and intermittent nature of solar and wind generation limit the extent to which existing renewable technologies can replace conventional forms of generation. The results of experiments in the United States indicate that carbon capture is unlikely to play a significant part in reducing emissions. Resolving the problem through long distance distribution, storage, tidal power and (arguably) fusion will be possible in time. Meanwhile, society faces a trade-off between maintaining nuclear capacity and building up large scale tidal generation, investing massively in energy storage and transmission, or accepting higher fossil fuel emissions for longer. Resolving this dilemma demands a robustly evidence-based approach coupled with open and informed public debate and a willingness by politicians to stand up to simplistic populist arguments which conflict with scientific evidence and ignore the trade-offs inevitably involved.
Currently countries such as Canada, Switzerland and France, which combine a significant nuclear power sector with hydro-electric generation, have the lowest carbon emissions among the advanced economy countries. Germany, which is due to close the last of its nuclear power stations by 2022, has seen emissions rise significantly as it has reverted to burning lignite to make up for declining nuclear generation. In Japan too, the closure of nuclear power plants following concerns over possible health effects of the Fukushima disaster has also led to increased coal-fired generation. Experience in these two countries suggests that, in the present state of technology, abandoning the objective of maintaining a significant element of nuclear generation in the energy mix could only be achieved at the cost of increased climate change gas emissions.
The Radical Party considers that addressing climate change should be given the highest possible priority over the coming decades with the aim of moving to a wholly renewable-based energy system as soon at this becomes technically and financially possible in the early part of the second half of the century. This should be achieved by:
- tightening the target for cutting net carbon emissions by 2050 from the present 80% reduction commitment and taking steps to ensure that this more demanding target is actually met;
- stepping up meaures to promote energy efficiency in all sectors of the economy;
- restoring the Climate Change Levy to a level which will sustain continuing strong growth in renewable capacity, or replacing it by an equivalent taxation and benefits-based support system, which might better reflect the interests of people on low incomes;
- replacing the carbon trading system by a carbon tax, which experience shows is an effective means of promoting energy efficiency and reducing carbon dioxide emissions;
- better energy management to reduce the need for additional generation at times of peak consumption;
- helping people out of fuel poverty by stepping up targetted investment in domestic energy saving;
- replacing the present scatter-gun tax-free winter fuel payments by focusing support on people on low incomes who are at risk of not being able to afford to keep themselves warm;
- expanding energy storage capacity as quickly as possible, while invesing in tidal power and continuing to replace ageing nuclear reactors with new and safer reactors based on tried and tested designs;
- supporting research into, and understanding of, the extent to which the move to electric vehicles and carbon free domestic heating and industrial processes is likely to demand increased electricity generation;
- encouraging wider public understanding of the risks which may be involved, on the one hand, in constructing new nuclear power plants and, on the other, of delaying measures to reduce emissions of CO2 and other gases, in terms of climate change and mortality linked to fossil fuel pollutants;
- ensureing that full use is made of collaboration at the European and international levels in tackling climate change, developing and promoting new clean technologies and maximising the efficiency of energy generation and distribution;
- increasing research into realistic long term alternatives to gas and nuclear energy, with increased funding for pilot experiments in energy saving, tidal power and fuel cell technology.