16 April 2014: Britain can shape EU climate and energy policy

This week EU energy ministers are meeting for a further discussion of the Energy Union, which the Juncker Commission had identified as one of its top priorities. Vice President of the European Commission Maroš Šef?ovi?, in charge of the energy union, has published a proposed strategy. This is an area in which the UK should take a lead.

The UK has some of the best policies of any European country, and Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey has been effective at building alliances with like-minded ministers, notably in the Green Growth Group, which stresses that climate policy can be a help to economic expansion, not a hindrance.

The case for European energy and climate policy clearly passes the subsidiarity test. Pollution does not stop at national frontiers, or even at the Channel. Some of the pollution that made the air in some British cities a health hazard last Friday came from the power stations on the continent (though much of it was home grown). And it makes no difference to the global climate where greenhouse gases are emitted – a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in Portugal or Croatia is as large a threat to UK residents as a tonne emitted in England.

So is a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in Australia. A global deal to tackle greenhouse gas emissions may be agreed at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Paris in December, and the UK will play an active part in these negotiations, whoever forms the next government. (Unless, perhaps, UKIP are part of a coalition, since they still argue that there is no such thing as climate change caused by human activity. Voters might consider who to believe on this issue: Nigel Farage or 97 per cent of the world’s climate scientists.)

London will have much more influence in Paris if it is a leading member of the EU delegation, not acting alone. However, the UN conference will probably not reach an agreement, because any one of the 196 countries involved can veto it. Even if it does, and the agreement is ratified by member countries, sanctions for emitting too much have yet to be identified.

The UNFCCC should not, therefore, be the only climate game in town this year. Agreed EU policies are enforced by the Commission and the European Court of Justice. The EU has a strong track record on cleaning up the air. But EU climate policies are not delivering. Greenhouse gas emissions are not regulated – unlike toxic emissions like sulphur dioxide – even for new power stations. The UK government does regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new power stations; there can be no new coal station unless it has Carbon Capture and Storage. London should encourage the Commission to propose an Emissions Performance Standard (EPS), to limit the amount of carbon dioxide that power stations are allowed to emit. Canada and the UK already have an EPS. Several US states do too, and the Obama Administration is introducing one federally. So this is an issue on which London could use its position as an ‘Atlantic bridge’ to good effect.

The UK government should also encourage the Commission to propose a carbon price floor in the ETS. Greenhouse gas levels are below the cap which the ETS sets – though this is due more to the economic downturn than to the ETS. But the current carbon price (around €7 per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted) is far too low to have any significant impact on investment decisions.

A successful negotiating strategy has to involve give and take, so London should be explicit that it has much to learn on energy efficiency policies. The UK should encourage the Commission to propose that most new power stations must be combined heat and power. Heat that is produced when anything is burnt should be used rather than being wasted up cooling towers. The Commission suggested this as part of the 2012 ‘energy efficiency directive’, but the Council rejected the proposal. The Commission should try again.

An effective negotiating strategy must also address the issue of money – where to save it as well as where to spend it. The Commission estimates that over €1 trillion needs to be invested into the energy sector in the EU by 2020. The Commission accepts that the EU should maintain technological leadership “in the nuclear domain”, but argues that this should include the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the nuclear fusion project in France. Billions have already been spent on ITER, but the earliest date that nuclear fusion could generate electricity commercially is 2050. ITER is a waste of money, and should be abandoned.

The EU should instead invest the money in three areas:

  • Nuclear technologies which could contribute to energy security and decarbonisation in the 2020s. The UK is, sensibly, pro-nuclear power, and the government should press for EU financial support for modern nuclear power technologies which will be even safer than existing nuclear stations and which can use radioactive waste and plutonium (of which the UK and France have large stockpiles) as fuel.
  • Tidal stream (putting turbines under the sea) and tidal lagoon power. These technologies are still at the development or demonstration stage, so need significant grants. The UK government is currently negotiating with a company that wants to build the world’s first tidal lagoon to generate electricity, in Swansea Bay, Wales. An EU grant would help the UK become the world leader in this technology, which could then be used in France, Germany, Spain and Portugal as well as India, South Korea, China and the Americas.
  • A Europe-wide efficient electricity grid, including a North Sea grid. This would be a major benefit to the UK, enabling us to harness the extensive offshore wind resources and also to balance supply and demand of electricity more effectively through greater interconnections with the continental grid.

The UK has much to learn from the rest of Europe on climate and energy issues, but also much to teach. Climate control requires co-operation, not competition.

This post was first published by British Influence (http://www.britishinfluence.org/0

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