Saturday, April 07, 2007

Rising emissions - words, deeds and the struggle to come

As one seasoned observer, who must remain anonymous, described Britain's approach to climate change, "we have the best words in the world". And, as an example, the Prime Minister's speeches on climate change really are quite brilliant [example]

So, what is the UK Government doing? We have led the world in setting a bold plan and targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week saw the release of provisional data for 2006. It shows a rise in UK carbon dioxide emissions [announcement] and ministers calling for more action on climate change [release]. What to make of this...?

Usually the data are plotted on charts with the y-axis from zero [example] thus obscuring the fine detail in the trends. It is interesting therefore to examine the data at a higher resolution, as in the chart above [data from Defra]. The chart plots CO2 emissions and linear trend in two periods from 1990-1997 and from 1997-2006, reflecting recent political epochs.

In the earlier period, the trend (an annual decline of 6.5MtCO2) is driven by the 'dash for gas' dramatically reducing coal-burn in the power sector - a unit of electricity produced by a new gas turbine creates about 60% less CO2 than the equivalent from the existing coal power stations.

The trend since 1997 has been rising (annually at 1.3 MtC). Coal use increased again as did the underlying drivers of CO2 growth, with affluence driving consumption and mobility, which have overpowered technical efficiency, decarbonisation, offshoring of heavy industry and policy interventions. At first the resurgence of coal was deliberate policy: a 1997 moratorium on new gas-fired stations was one of the first energy policies of the new Labour government in response to a 'crisis' in the coal industry [see Trade and Industry Committee analysis]. Now the trend to coal is driven by high gas prices and energy security concerns, with huge brand new coal stations now seeking licenses - see RWE in Essex and E.ON in Kent.

Some stark observations about where we are and where we need to be:
[view spreadsheet / xls download]

  • If we were on a straight line from 1990 to the 2050 goal of a 60% cut in CO2 emissions, the 2006 figure should be 497 Mt, but we are at 560 Mt - and therefore we are already 63Mt or 11 years adrift.
  • Even the straight line from 1990 would require an annual cut of 5.9 MtC, but from where we are now the straight line path would need an annual cut of 7.4 MtC to catch up and meet the target - this is more than was achieved in the dash for gas era, and this would need to be sustained for the next 44 years.
  • Friends of the Earth and others a campaigning for an annual 3% cut in emissions [see The Big Ask]: that would mean a reduction of 16.8 MtC next year - almost 3 times the rate of reduction achieved during the dash for gas.
  • In fact, 3% annual reduction in emissions from now would give emissions in 2050 that were 75% below 1990 levels - this is beyond the government's target but is likely to be the minimum needed to achieve a global reduction consistent with avoiding dangerous climate change with rich countries taking on greater 'burdens' in the cuts.
  • To achieve a 60% cut using a geometric rather than straight-line path would require a 2% year on year cut, starting with a 10.9 MtC reduction for 2007.
We have great words on climate change, but emissions are still rising when they should be falling - and falling at rates unprecedented in history. New measures like the Climate Change Bill and emissions trading system can make a difference, but they are only as effective as as the budget, caps and implementing measures. Despite all the words and policy, the market conditions for power-sector investors say "build coal", so it's not obvious how we will reach the new rapidly decreasing emissions trajectory without doing something dramatically different and ambitious.


tom burke said...

This analysis also illustrates a broader and more general point. Most gains in environmental quality in Britain, and in most other places, have been more a consequence of structural change in the economy than envirtonmental policy. It would be very interesting to know if anyone had done a study which sought to seperate the effects of structural change from those of environmental policy.

Clive Bates said...

Thanks Tom, Perhaps the problem is that policy interventions just never match the strength of structural forces, even though we do somehow live with structural change - our policy-induced carbon price is tiny compared to the effect of rising oil and gas prices.

Caspar Henderson said...

On my (perhaps overspeedy) skim read, the summary of the paper you link to on why the 'dash for gas' happened indicates that in policy terms it was largely fortuituous. We were 'saved' (in the sense of GHG reductions, although this was not the aim at the time) by technology ex machina, so to speak. In what looks like the likely absence of environment becoming a central organising principle in the way industrial societies work (on the basis you don't get a 'Manhattan project for the environment' unless you really do fear the equivalent of the Nazis coming to get you) can we imagine another set of structural changes (incorporating big technological advances) that 'save the day' again? Is to try and do so essentially giving up on the problem?

Clive Bates said...

Yes, the dash for gas wasn't actually done by design - it was really a consequence of liberalisation following privatisation. The economics of the time lined up behind building CCGTs, because capital cost was low, and the fuel was cheap and domestically sourced. Tough regulation for acid rain and air quality, combined with the generators no longer subsidising coal through expensive contracts created a decisive disadvantage.

We've already banked fossil fuel decarbonisation (ie. gas) and structural movement of heavy industry. And the gas advantage is giving way to coal again...

Always difficult to foresee structural change, but maybe other changes might include: very high oil or gas prices, driven by insecurity or approaching 'peak oil' (don't hold your breath); a serious policy-induced carbon price > €50 tonne CO2; different approach to pricing infrastructure for demand-management purposes; a telecoms / internet driven revolution in how we work and travel; changes to 'social geography' and transport intensity, perhaps driven by housing and lifestyle choices; changing attitudes to material consumption in favour of experience (yoga instead of shopping); a step back from market orthodoxy to enable a huge nuclear programme. Perhaps profound cultural change, somehow creating a changed relationship with the future - maybe our descendants will master time travel then return from the future and give us a bollocking for making a mess of their inheritance.

On the other hand, theories of technology suggest we should expect accelerating economic growth, there are about 50% more people expected by 2050, world average income is now about $8,000, but about $38,000 for the US... so there is considerable room for material growth for most of the world.