Cristopher Snowdon

How do we cut carbon and how fast can we go?

How do we cut carbon and how fast can we go?
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The 2019 Spectator Energy Summit opened with the chairman, Andrew Neil, listing the UK’s considerable achievements in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon emissions are 43 per cent lower today than they were in 1990 and Britain’s energy supply recently functioned without coal for over a fortnight - something it had not done for well over a century.

The UK has the best record of decarbonisation of any G20 country but, as Mr Neil noted, much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. On the morning of the summit, the UK’s energy mix was 61 per cent natural gas, over 20 per cent nuclear and only four per cent wind. Energy from renewables varies enormously (wind was providing 25 per cent the night before), but it is nevertheless noteworthy that Britain was getting more power from France when the summit began that it was getting from wind.

The Committee on Climate Change’s advisory target of net zero emissions by 2050 is not yet official government policy, but it seems only a matter of time before it is enshrined in legislation. How do we cut carbon and how fast can we go? 

There was general agreement that decarbonisation would require a mix of different energy sources, as well as some faith in scientific advancements to light the way. Offshore and onshore windpower will clearly play a leading role. David Wright (National Grid) said that the cost of wind, solar and battery storage are all tumbling, but that decarbonising the big ticket items of heating and transport will require a shift from natural gas to (relatively expensive) hydrogen. Moreover, the gradual decarbonisation of transport will lead to a commensurate increase in demand for electricity. At a minimum, we will need to quadruple the amount of energy we get from renewables.

At the moment, we depend on a lot of natural gas and a significant quantity of nuclear energy, both of which are controversial. Natascha Engel MP, the former Commissioner for Shale Gas, called on the government to support fracking as a way to use the gas from ‘under our feet’ rather than importing gas from Russia and the Middle East. We will need gas for years to come, she said, and we could use carbon capture and storage (CCS) to reduce its carbon footprint.

Politically, however, this could be a lost cause. Antoinette Sandbach MP (BEIS committee member) said that fracking companies have failed to explain the community benefits of their industry to the public and, as a result, local resistance has effectively left us dependent on imports.

As for nuclear, Angela Hepworth (EDF Energy) insisted that the much-maligned Hinkley Point power station will come online in 2025 and will produce carbon-free energy that is cheaper than 80 per cent of renewables. Tim Lord (BEIS) said that Hinkley Point will supply seven per cent of Britain’s energy and that the government believes that nuclear has a ‘really important role in providing base load power’.

Daniel Westerman (National Grid) pointed out that renewables contributed two thirds of the country’s energy capacity last year. As costs fall, subsides will disappear, but the intermittent nature of renewable energy means that we will rely on nuclear and/or gas as a back-up for years to come. A fully renewable energy market is possible but it will require technological leaps in battery storage and carbon capture.

In the meantime, insulation offers a simple win-win, particularly in public housing, by reducing energy consumption and cutting bills. Antoinette Sandbach (BEIS committee member) said that energy efficiency and insulation could be worth six Hinkley Points and, according to Tim Lord, the government is already spending £640 million a year insulating people’s homes. Decarbonising transport will also be relatively straightforward once the infrastructure has been put in place, because electric vehicles are cheaper to run than traditional cars. 

It all comes down to cost and public support, with the latter largely dependent on the former. When green policies save people money, they tend to be rapidly adopted. When prices rise, the public are less keen. Andrew Neil noted that France, in its 22nd week of ‘gilets jaunes’ protests, was having second thoughts about setting its own net zero target. Natascha Engel cited the shock election result in Australia as an example of what happens when politicians don’t bring the public with them on green issues.

Polly Billington (Director UK100) said that only 18 per cent of the electorate say that they vote on the basis of environmental issues, and that half of them are lying. David Joffe (Committee on Climate Change) acknowledged that whilst the public is generally supportive of targets, people are not so keen on some of the actions that are required to meet them. People will need to be engaged if the government is to avoid a backlash when prices rise.  

And rise they will, at least in the short term. Polly Billington acknowledged that electric vehicles are cheaper to run, but only until the government sees fuel duty revenues falling and decides to tax them. The writer and broadcaster Liam Halligan pointed out that many renewables are only cheaper because of subsidies and called on the government to create a level playing field by scrapping subsidies and introducing a comprehensive carbon tax.

2050 is more than three decades away and there will inevitably ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ in the road ahead. To some extent, a leap of faith is required for the net zero goal to be achieved. No one at the summit underestimated the challenge, but with the right technology and the right policies, full decarbonisation no longer seems impossible.