Thursday, 29 March 2012

A secure and sustainable energy future?

In a week of news on sustainability, and on a day of news on our future energy supply, I am reflecting on the British people's awareness of what we use energy for and their expectations of where it will come from in future.

Eric Pickles launched the Government's new National Planning Policy Framework this week, retaining its "presumption in favour of sustainable development".  While its intention is to empower local authorities to implement local plans, the new planning framework risks both commercial development of environmentally sensitive habitats and incoherent implementation of national infrastructure imperatives. The problem is that sustainable development means different things to different people and, when it lies in the hands of local planning departments, consistent interpretation seems unlikely.

The "Planet under Pressure" conference has also taken place in London this week and has today published its "State of the Planet Declaration" . While the passion and concern of the 3,000 delegates in London and the further 3,000 online participants is beyond question, I think the turgid and inaccessible language of this declaration is a missed opportunity to create widespread awareness of the challenges we face in maintaining a sustainable habitat for humanity and all life on earth.

The next piece of today's news is, to my mind, a good thing that could be better.  DECC has published provisional figures for Britain's greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, showing a welcome reduction on 2010 figures.  Home heating emitted 22% less carbon dioxide than the previous year - but just look at the weather we had in those two years!  December 2010 was the coldest December in recorded history, while 2011 started and ended with truly extraordinary warmth.  As DECC notes, the mean temperatures experienced here in the first and last quarters of 2011 were 2.2°C and 4.1°C, respectively,  warmer than the previous year.  This fall in domestic heating emissions is great but is no more sustainable than the weather.  As the Americans say, we have to invest in "winterizing" our homes, businesses and public buildings.

Emissions from electricity generation also fell from 2010, by around 6%. This is attributed both to lower demand (3% less than 2010) and to greater availability of our nuclear generating capacity: the consequence was a 17% fall in gas usage for power generation and an 11% rise in nuclear power.  Some interesting statistics are buried in the Tables (remember that these figures are provisional).  In 2011:

  • Coal accounted for one-quarter of our electricity supply but two-thirds of our CO2 emissions from power stations.  
  • Renewables generated more than 5% of our electricity supply.
CO2 emissions from transport (including domestic flights) were almost flat, falling by just 1.4% from 2010 and remaining within half a percent of 1990 levels.  A growing share of a diminishing pot.   

In this morning's latest headline, Eon and Npower's owner, RWE, announced their withdrawal from the UK nuclear new build consortium, Horizon.  Amid cheers from respected environmental organisations including WWF (an organisation I have supported since their inception over 40 years ago) and Friends of the Earth, who see nuclear power as an unmitigated environmental disaster, there should also be caution.  Our demand for electricity in this country will certainly grow in the coming decades, as population and consumption (the march of the gadgets) both increase and as heating and transport move from fossil fuel combustion to low carbon electricity.

But where will this low carbon electricity come from?  So many concerned nature lovers tell me of their abhorrence of wind turbines, which they see as despoiling this green and pleasant land.  Even offshore wind farms are described as an intrusion into coastal views that have been uninterrupted since the dawn of time.  What I need to know is where these custodians of our beautiful landscape imagine we will get our energy from in the coming decades - a period that will include the rest of my life and the best years of my children's lives.

Youth negotiators asked a critical question at the international climate change negotiations in Bonn in 2009:  "How old will you be in 2050?"  That's the date by which Britain has committed in law to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of 1990 levels.  The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has set a trajectory to meet this commitment, in our national carbon budgets.  This requires us to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2027 and effectively to decarbonise our electricity generation by 2030.  This is seen as achievable through a combination of renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS).  Yet the National Trust and almost everyone who has a window with a view opposes further deployment of wind energy, energy and engineering companies are walking away from new nuclear construction and the Government remains unable to invest its promised £1 billion in a CCS demonstration project because no power generator believes it is affordable, achievable or that there will be sufficient return on investment.

It is for this reason that DECC's new Minister sneaked out his announcement, at midnight on Friday 16 March, that investors in new gas-fired power stations will be able to run them unabated - ie., without CCS - for the next 33 years!  The Committee on Climate Change wrote this week to Ed Davey asking him to reflect on the CCC's carbon budgets, in the light of DECC's granting of these "grandfather rights" to gas generators, and to set clear decarbonisation objectives in the current Energy Market Reform.

What is missing from this story of shortsighted squabbling and failure to act when we must?  Leadership, that's what.  If you manage to read that far, page 6 of today's State of the Planet Declaration includes the succinct phrases, "We must show leadership at all levels.  We must all play our parts".  In Annexe 2, Ban ki-Moon declares his intention to appoint a chief scientific advisor on global sustainability.  Let's hope he picks someone who is not only a scientific virtuoso but also a master communicator.  Without an eloquent and attention-grabbing figurehead to spell out the choices we must make, the squabbling will continue to cover our inaction and the public will continue to believe that their iPads, Sky boxes and microwaves run on pixie dust that won't hurt a fly.