Well I must admit, I for one did not see this news coming, and it has come at quite the shock to me, and I would like to think much of the developed world and climate hawks all around. The EU is set to meet and surpass the greenhouse gas emission targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol way back in 1997, cutting overall amounts by at least 5% per country involved, which is a sizeable amount whichever way you cut it.
Considering many other developed nations have either long given up on reaching these goals, or have simply backed out in the interests of domestic markets (think Canada and their precious tar-sand resources), or never actually ratified the Protocol in the first place, the fact that the EU has achieved this is quite some show of progress in the right direction.
What surprised me even more so, and this is undoubtedly where my powerful cynicism comes into play, or what I like to think of as realistic cynicism at least, is that the United Kingdom is leading the pack in slashing GHG emissions in real terms (actual tonnes of emissions), cutting them by 6% in 2011, equivalent to roughly 36m tonnes of CO2. Compare this to 5% for France and just 2% for solar-rich Germany, and you see what all the fuss is about. Personally, and I don’t believe I was alone in this thought, I always mostly ignored the government’s claims of how well we were doing and how we would easily meet our targets and surpass them, and given recent developments in our energy policy, I would be mad to think of it as truth; but apparently I was wrong.
Now, there are multiple reasons as to why this sudden drop in emissions came to be, and when combined, they would seem to account for much of the cuts we are now seeing and inevitably will be boasting about on the global stage. Firstly, a milder year for weather all round depressed gas and electricity usage, and secondly, cleaner wind and solar energy has steadily been coming online since the mid-noughties, and even though there are relatively few numbers of MWs being produced via renewables, they obviously have a impact.
However, and possibly more importantly, a practically stagnant European economy drove down the use of any form of energy, be it fossil or renewable, in part forcing the decline in emissions, and in others the maddeningly new high bill costs supposedly ‘needed’ to keep the Big Six running our country’s supply of juice.
Still, I don’t want to go diminishing what is by all means an impressive feat of international and national pollution reduction, as even with these factors accompanying it, there will be other more noble reasons for the results we’re seeing. This is where I am most confused however, and I’ll explain why in the remaining part of this post, without trying to put my nation down too much.
As a government, the energy side of things is in pretty bloody terrible shape right now. Ministers such as George Osborne, John Hayes and David Cameron are individually and collectively splintering and scattering what was left of our policy for low-carbon investment, simultaneously scaring away and pissing off some big players in the clean energy marketplace and creating severe uncertainty in a sector of industry which requires utmost certainty to continue growing at such explosive pace. I won’t go into much detail on the specific characters responsible, as both of my last posts attempt this separately, but suffice to say it seems blatant, to me at least, that the UK is not well placed as a leader in reducing emissions and bolstering renewable technologies. This is the first part of my puzzlement.
In another turn of confusion, a report was released today backed by the WWF-UK and written by one of my lecturers a Imperial College London, Rob Gross, detailing exactly these issues. In it, he describes how the UK must target policy to promote green energy or else risk losing massive investment from important international companies. The main argument tackles the now infamous carbon price, a policy which has consistently been cited as the saviour to all our problems, in one single motion, and I will admit I had been a follower of the theory.
Not according to Rob Gross; his paper highlights the major flaws in this thinking, demonstrating the need for proper regulation specifically for renewables, as simply waiting for a carbon price to fix it will not bring about the results we need. If this route is taken, gas will rapidly replace coal and oil, pushing out green tech investment, and if policies are not tailored to avoid this, the UK could miss out on a huge potential windfall. Unfortunately, with both Osborne and Hayes backing shale gas exploration and North Sea offshore drilling, and generally avoiding mentioning wind, I’m astonished we haven’t missed this opportunity already.
We are also shying heavily away from nuclear energy, both in terms of enticing new projects or continuing ongoing ones, and seem paralysed by a powerful NIMBYism which is holding up new wind developments in a nation with the highest wind resources of the EU.
It’s for these reasons that I am entirely confused as to how we have achieved this level of emissions cuts, even with a sluggish economy and mild year helping us along. Perhaps I am being too harsh on the UK government, and in fact the solar incentive programs and few-but-large wind farms spread about the nation are helping greatly towards lowering our fossil-fuel intensity. Then again, a steady switch to gas-fired grids could also be subtly responsible for these trends, and although these produce less emissions, we are a nation which could, if given enough pressure, leapfrog gas and head straight into a renewable-nuclear mix. It’s countries like China which need that gas intervention to kick their addiction to coal and oil, not us.
Of course, I will still be gleeful that we have arrived at such a successful situation regardless of how, as it is for once a stride in the right direction, and will set a precedence for other nations to follow. As for now, the UK can be happy atop the Kyoto throne, but many will be keeping a close eye on emissions over the next few years as weather stabilises and the economy begins growing again. Up or down, what do you think?