28 May 2009: UK energy policy

The UK has reduced total greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 by 15%. However, this has not primarily been achieved by government policies introduced to protect the climate.

The main driver has been the ‘dash for gas’, that is, the rapid expansion of gas-fired power stations, which produce considerably less carbon dioxide than coal ones. Gas generated less than 1% of UK electricity in 1990 and now generates almost 40%. The expansion began under the Conservatives. Climate control was one reason (but not necessarily the prime motivation) – the Major government signed the UK up to the UN Climate Convention in Rio in 1992. However, the main motive was to defeat the coal miners. The miners, facing widespread pit closures, effectively brought down the Heath government in the early 1970s and tried to bring down the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. After 1997, the Labour government continued the dash for gas, again partly for climate reasons and partly because Blair was no friend of the trade unions.

Now, coal is now firmly back on the political agenda. The North Sea gas fields are running out and importing gas from Norway is politically and practically unproblematic – gas from Russia is quite the opposite. Therefore, the Labour government stated in April 2009 that it will allow new coal stations, but only if a proportion of the capacity is fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS). It will subsidise up to four CCS demonstrations (previously it had promised only one). If the demonstrations work, all existing coal stations will have to be retrofitted with CCS in the early or mid-2020s. And as a safety net (in case CCS doesn’t work), the government will consider an Emissions Performance Standard (such as the one in California).

Policies on other low-carbon energy sources have also moved positively. In response to the ongoing debate about feed-in tariffs versus the renewables obligation, on renewables, the new Energy and Climate Change Secretary announced in late 2008 that the UK would have a feed-in tariff for small renewables (up to 5Mw) and that the renewables obligation would continue for anything larger than this. (Again, this is similar to the Californian regulatory approach.) And having come to power with an anti-nuclear manifesto commitment in 1997 and remained against it in several energy papers since then, Labour is now in favour of new nuclear stations.

Therefore, there are now no major differences between Labour and Conservatives on energy policy. The Tories strongly support CCS and an Emissions Performance Standard and have always been pro-nuclear. (The Liberal Democrats remain anti-nuclear and have a stronger line on coal.) So, whatever the next general election result, UK policy will be strong on dealing with climate change.

However, delivery may be less strong. On renewables, the UK’s performance is extremely weak. It has Europe’s best wind resource, but gets only 1% of its electricity from wind (see UK – climate and energy statistics). Germany, with little coastline so less offshore potential, gets 5%. The main obstacle to wind development in the UK is planning, and local authorities – whichever political party controls them – are usually more hostile to wind farm proposals than central government. So the Conservative and Liberal Democrat talk of giving more power to local authorities is worrying for renewables delivery.

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change shows that the costs of moving to a low carbon economy are much lower than the costs of not moving and dealing with the consequences. There are also major economic gains for countries that become world leaders in low carbon industries. However, the transitional costs will be significant and so the key debate should be about how we pay. Many environmentalists favour people paying as fuel consumers. This is in line with the ‘polluter pays principle’ and is sensible for transport fuel use. But, for gas and electricity, increased fuel bills are regressive (poorer people pay more as a percentage of their income than richer people). Thanks to the gulf stream, the UK has a temperate climate, but winters can still be cold and thousands of people die each year due to fuel poverty. Therefore, the main part of the low carbon transition should be paid through taxes, not fuel bills. UK public finances are certainly not healthy at present, but if it is to meet its legally-enforceable carbon budgets, its binding EU target of 15% of energy from renewables by 2020 (and whatever target comes out of Copenhagen in December), the UK must answer the financial question: not who pays (basically we all do), but how do we pay?

Next week’s comments will be on Canada (Monday), with an accompanying article about Canadian federal and provincial policies, and the European Parliamentary election results (Friday). Note also our new section on climate and energy statistics (see National and regional statistics). This will be added to on a regular basis. We have also added a new page that displays links to our articles and comments based on the country or region that is covere (see Articles and comments by countries and regions).

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