14 July 2009: ‘Pick and mix’ approach won’t control climate change

On Monday, 13 July 2009, Ed Miliband, the UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary, opened the Little Cheyne Court wind farm in Kent. With a capacity of just under 60Mw, this is the largest wind farm in South East England. It is located just north of the Dungeness nuclear power station and the grid cables and pylons go right through the new wind farm. Yet, there was still opposition on the grounds that the turbines would spoil the view. There were also legal challenges on the grounds that the wind farm would be dangerous for swans flying to and from a nearby Site of Special Scientific Interest, despite the fact that climate change is by far the greatest threat to swans and all other wildlife, and uncontrolled climate change would mean that this SSSI would be under the English Channel! As a result of the challenges, it took the developer, npower renewables, ten years to plan and construct the wind farm.

Greg Barker, Conservative MP for a nearby constituency, originally opposed the application. However, to his credit, he realises, now that the turbines are up, that he was wrong. He is shadow climate change minister, so his new attitude is important and welcome, and a politician accepting that he has been wrong in the past is unusual and brave.

Ed Miliband said in his speech that renewables are an essential part of controlling climate change, and that the ‘pick and mix’ approach – shall we have renewables, or energy efficiency, or cleaner fossil fuels, or nuclear? – must be rejected, because we need all of them. This is absolutely right. On the same day, the Confederation of British Industry published a report arguing that UK wind targets should be reduced because it is cheaper to build more nuclear power stations. This is probably wrong, if the full costs of decommissioning and waste management are counted. Anyway, it is irrelevant – both are required.

Miliband is committed and effective, but the Labour government he represents has a bad record on climate change and energy. Blair, and now Brown, take a progressive line in international negotiations, but delivery at home is weak. The UK is third from bottom of the European league on renewables, above only Luxembourg and Malta, despite having the EU’s best wind resource. On energy efficiency, the UK has made modest improvements, but overall energy use has increased since 1995 due to economic growth. The UK is not alone in this: France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark have also increased energy use. Sweden has remained at the same level. Germany has reduced its overall energy use, but this is partly due to the closure of industrial plants in eastern Germany, and a number of other eastern European countries have seen reductions in overall energy use (see Energy Efficiency Watch: Final Report on the Evaluation of National Energy Efficiency Action Plans). The EU and its member states are failing on energy efficiency. The targets are only ‘indicative’ – which basically means meaningless.

The EU is promising a better performance on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to make fossil fuel use less polluting. It has said that ‘up to 12’ demonstration projects will be funded before 2015. ‘Up to’ is a classic politician’s get-out clause – it makes the number de facto indicative. In addition, there will inevitably be delays as member states squabble over who gets the cash. Liberal Democrat MEP, Chris Davies, who was behind the agreement to provide funding, said this week that the European Investment Bank should take the lead in allocating the funds. He is right.

Miliband announced in April that the UK would increase the demonstration projects funded by the UK itself from one to ‘up to four’. And he also proposed a ‘safety net’ of an Emissions Performance Standard, in case CCS does not work. Since the UK has an enormous quantity of coal, this is encouraging. The Conservatives have a broadly similar position. (To be fair, they had it before Labour did.) Of course, the specifics have to be defined and the inevitable consultations will have to take place. CCS demonstration projects in the UK should focus on ‘pre-combustion’ (see Carbon capture and storage). There should be no new coal power stations unless they have CCS for their full capacity. Demonstration of ‘post-combustion’ is needed, as this can be retrofitted, so is essential for all the new coal stations recently opened in places like China and India. However, it would be perverse to allow new UK coal stations to demonstrate something, which is needed for retrofitting. Post-combustion CCS should be demonstrated on existing stations, either in the UK or, more sensibly, in India or China.

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