The linked threats of climate change and the warming and degradation of the ocean pose as great a danger to our future as war and population growth. The UK is particularly at risk because of the very real danger that polar warming is weakening the North Atlantic drift, which could lead to a sharp fall in average temperatures later in the century.
Tough decisions will be demanded if disaster is to be avoided. A step-change is needed in response to these challenges involving a very large increase in the national effort, international mobilisation, regulatory and fiscal changes and hard-headed and evidence-based support for established and emerging technical options, including the question of the role of nuclear power in the UK energy mix.
Climate change is central to environmental policy as a whole because, as well as tackling global warming, a strong and holistic response will also address other environmental threats, such as atmospheric pollution, the depletion of scarce resources, and the threat to biodiversity on land and in the sea. Acquiring a proper understanding of the nature and extent of the issues is essential, particularly as concerns tropical forests, coral reefs and polar icecaps, where human activity is rapidly destroying vital evidence. British universities and institutes have a strong record of working in these areas and maintaining government support for collaboration with European and international partners is critical.
The Government is committed by the 2008 Climate Change Act to an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. While progress in the short-term is on track, achieving this goal will require a step change. A particular problem is that tackling climate change effectively is likely to demand a large increase in the use of electricity (for clean transport and heating), a factor which is still largely ignored. In the 2015 General Election, a clear majority of voters supported parties calling for a stronger response to climate change. But following the replacement of the Coalition (which had a good record on climate change) by one-party Conservative rule, the Government backtracked on important commitments.
It accelerated the phasing out of the Climate Change Levy, which supports new renewable energy projects, impeded the development of land-based wind generation (the most cost-effective technology), and cut funding for the insulation of the most energy wasteful homes. At the same time, it promoted a shift from coal to gas and biomass without acknowledging that, depending on its source, leakages of methane (with a much bigger global warming effect than CO2) from gas pipelines can cause as much climate change damage as burning coal.
Encouraging the burning of waste as an alternative to landfill without requiring energy capture has led to an increase in CO2-generating high temperature incineration. The Waste Management company, for example, is reported to have shut down 30% of its recycling capacity over a two year period. Likewise, taking into account the whole cycle, burning imported wood waste, a solution being promoted by the Government, may accelerate rather than prevent climate change.
Tackling climate change raises the challenge of containing the demand for energy while developing new, clean technologies (many of which have the potential to create sustainable jobs). The share of the UK’s energy that comes from renewable resources has increased in recent years, but the warming of the Arctic shows that around the world much faster progress is needed in improving the use of energy and in switching to fossil-free power generation.
The main obstacles are: first, the high proportion of energy currently consumed in the form of petroleum and gas for transport and heating; second, the intermittent nature of solar and wind power and the impossibility of rapidly building a storage system to balance this; and, third, the physical, political and financial obstacles that stand in the way of hydro, tidal and nuclear generation, which Canada, France and Switzerland have shown could play a much bigger role in resolving this dilemma.
Radical Reform proposes:
- Energy Saving
- The Case for a Carbon Tax
- Fossil Free Electricity
- Protecting the Ocean
- International Collaboration
Media attention is focused on renewable power and replacing fossil fuel by electricity in transport, which accounts for 40% of end-user energy consumption. But to be effective, policy must also encompass energy saving (the quickest way to tackle climate change emissions) and switching to fossil-free energy in the domestic sector, industry and services, which account for 29%, 17% and 14% of consumption respectively.
The next big step in transport is already underway with the move to electric vehicles. Unless radically new technologies are developed, increasing use of batteries will run up against constraints in the availability of lithium and cobalt within a decade or two, but by that stage hydrogen-based fuel technologies, including fuel cells, may have emerged as an alternative clean power source with different requirements in terms of materials.
While transport grabs the headlines, well over 50% of energy is used to heat and light domestic and business premises. This poses a problem as Britain’s elderly housing stock is inefficient by European standards and because heating requires a distribution infrastructure, which would be enormously expensive to replace. Thus, KPMG calculated in 2016 that it would cost £300 billion to create the infrastructure necessary to replace gas heating by electricity. Considerable scope exists to encourage better insulation in older homes, solar water heating and energy-efficient designs in new commercial and domestic buildings. As part of this, consideration should be given to using the local taxation system to encourage improved energy efficiency in all kinds of buildings.
Significant savings in energy consumption and CO2 emissions could be achieved by promoting district heating schemes involving combined heat and power using waste materials as feedstock. This approach is being pursued in Denmark, where the role of district heating is growing rapidly, supported by a positive regulatory and funding environment and local authorities, residents’ associations and social housing providers.
In the UK, where almost all domestic heating is individualised, the concept of district heating needs to be actively promoted. The economic balance should be altered by introducing a charge on burning rubbish (which has expanded rapidly in recent years) to encourage the development of a market in waste heat. The proceeds from such a charge should be used to fund district heating schemes, and (where recycling is not possible) promote high temperature incineration systems, which use heat to generate electricity.
Beyond that, the best strategy could be to retain the gas distribution network, while replacing fossil natural gas with hydrogen (whose combustion products are water vapour and oxygen). Subject to a substantial increase in power generation, this could be produced from water using electricity from wind, tidal and nuclear generation at night when domestic and business demand is low; which, coupled with smart metering, would 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 due to improved technology and the long-term decline in energy-hungry manufacturing. Price is likely to be the most effective driver of further reductions. Unfortunately, inspired by neo-conservative small-government ideology, the international community is now committed to a cumbersome and bureaucratic market-based system of carbon emissions trading to raise the cost of fossil fuels to large industrial emitters. A more effective and fairer way to cut emissions would be to introduce a carbon tax, a strategy which has been successfully pioneered in Sweden and California.
Fossil Free Electricity
Climate change should be given the highest possible priority over the coming decades with the aim of moving to a wholly fossil-free energy system as soon as this becomes technically and financially possible. However, the intermittent nature of solar and wind generation limits the extent to which existing renewable technologies can replace conventional generation and experiments in the United States show that carbon capture is unlikely to be a cost-effective way of reducing emissions.
Resolving the energy supply issue through long-distance distribution, storage, tidal power and (possibly) fusion may be possible in time. Meanwhile, society faces a trade-off between maintaining nuclear capacity or accepting higher fossil fuel emissions for longer. Resolving this dilemma demands a robust, evidence-based approach coupled with informed public debate and a willingness by politicians to stand up to arguments which conflict with scientific evidence.
Currently Canada, Switzerland and France, which primarily depend on nuclear and hydro-electric generation, have the lowest carbon emissions in the industrial world. Germany, which is due to close the last of its nuclear power stations by 2022, has seen emissions rise by up to 5% a year as it has reverted to burning lignite to make up for declining nuclear generation. In Japan too, the closure of nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster has led to increased coal-fired generation. Experience in these countries suggests that at present, abandoning a significant element of nuclear generation in the energy mix could only be achieved at the cost of increased climate change gas emissions.
The Government’s decision to go ahead with the Hinkley C nuclear power station was an act of folly, for two reasons: first because the technology was untried, and, second, because turning to foreign investors to fund the project more than doubled the financing cost. A much better way to maintain a nuclear element in the energy mix for the next forty or fifty years until alternative technologies mature, would be to opt for tried and tested technology and fund new power stations through low interest long-term public sector borrowing. Such a strategy would avoid the need to burn gas, would protect future consumers from having to pay grossly inflated prices for their energy, and would provide a stable source of baseload power to guarantee the continuity of supply necessary to offset the inevitable weather-related fluctuations in wind and solar generation.
Protecting the Ocean
Marine pollution, the impact of global warming on the world’s oceans and the destruction of fishing stocks and breeding grounds in mangrove swamps and coral reefs are a growing threat to the survival of vital food fish species and to hundreds of millions of people who live in low-lying areas around the world. As a maritime nation with an important fishing industry, an extensive continental shelf and responsibility for vast areas of the Atlantic, Antarctic, Indian, Mediterranean and Pacific oceans, Britain should take a llead in addressing these problems.
a high priority should be given to protecting our inshore fishing grounds by extending marine reserves and areas where trawling is banned to protect species such as flat fish, sea bream and shell fish, which live and spawn on the seabed. The recovery of a diverse seabed ecology in areas of the North and Irish Seas, which have been denuded by generations of trawling, should be promoted by encouraging operators to leave the foundation structures of redundant oil and gas rigs and wind turbines in place after operations have ceased, a strategy which can be shown to help maintain fish stocks.
At the same time, the UK should step up efforts to protect the open ocean from the devastation it faces from pollution, industrial fishing and mining. Britain is uniquely placed in this regard because of its responsibility for fourteen overseas island and sovereign territories, several of which are surrounded by Exclusive Coastal Economic Zones of the greatest importance for biodiversity and the survival of endangered species.
An important step was taken in 2015, when the UK declared the ocean around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific to be a protected zone. This was followed up in the following year with the granting of similar protection to much of the ocean around Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, creating a total protected area around the two territories equivalent to twice the size of Spain. Steps should now be taken to reinforce and extend the scope of protection given to fish and other wildlife in the economic zones around the UK’s other Overseas Territories.
In terms of multilateral action, discussions are underway in the United Nations to build on the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (which regulates seabed mining and cable laying) to create a more comprehensive legal protection for the open ocean, which lies outside the existing 200 nautical mile exclusive coastal economic zones. Once endorsed by a sufficient number of UN member states, the proposed convention will open the way for research to provide a basis for regulating fishing and seabed mining and permit the establishment of marine protected zones in international waters.
A number of powerful nations, including the US, Russia and the handful of countries which dominate long distance fishing, may seek to delay or weaken effective regulation. As an influential maritime nation, the UK should do everything it can to protect the open ocean in conjunction with other wealthy democracies where voters are mobilised in favour of environmental sustainability, and with poor coastal nations which need to preserve off-shore resources for the future.
In working to address the twin threats of climate change and marine degradation, close collaboration with like-minded international partners will be crucial. In view of the central role the EU plays in funding the UK’s participation in joint scientific research and its influence in international negotiations, the highest priority must be to sustain collaboration with our European partners. The fact that the current US President denies that human activities play a role in climate change and considers international engagement to be against his country’s interests, makes strong partnership with the EU all the more essential.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
- tighten the target for cutting net emissions by 2050 from 80% to 100% carbon neutral and ensure this target is met;
- promote an annual user-friendly report to the nation on progress towards a carbon-neutral economy;
- restore Climate Change funding to sustain continuing strong growth in renewable capacity and remove regulatory impediments to land-based wind generation;
- replace carbon trading with a carbon tax to reduce industrial CO2 emissions.
- use the tax system to penalise failure and reward success in cutting energy consumption;
- promote better energy management to reduce the need for additional generation at times of peak consumption;
- increase support for combined heat and energy and district heating systems;
- expand energy storage;
- support research into the impact of electric vehicles and carbon-free heating and industrial processes on electricity demand and develop policies to cope with the anticipated increase in demand for electricity.
- develop European and international collaboration in promoting clean generation and distribution;
- promote understanding of the balance of risks involved in nuclear versus fossil fuel power generation;
- maintain a significant nuclear element in the energy mix over the coming decades until new non-weather dependent fossil-free technologies mature;
- step up research into alternatives to gas and nuclear energy, with increased funding for pilot experiments in energy saving, tidal power and fuel cell technology.
Protecting the Ocean
- extend inshore marine reserves;
- increase research and investment into fish farming to relieve pressure on wild stocks;
- expand research into ways to reduce marine pollution by chemicals and solid waste;
- leave the foundations of redundant oil rigs and off-shore wind turbines in place to encourage the recovery of a diverse seabed ecology;
- extend protection given to fish and other wildlife in the economic zones around the UK’s Overseas Territories;
- give strong support for the development and implementation of the proposed UN convention on the protection of the open ocean.
- preserve and build on involvement in EU research activities and funding;
- develop the leading role of British universities and institutes in research into global environmental threats;
- support increased international legality, initiatives, and research collaboration on climate change, marine degradation and other critical environmental threats.