3 September 2012

Failing to Plan – or Planning to Fail

The UK Government made a legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of the 1990 levels by 2050.

Although Cameron promised us the greenest government ever, sadly current policies more or less guarantee we will fail to deliver this commitment.

The problem is that Government is also committed to allowing aviation the same emissions in 2050 as in 2005. Following the government’s own numbers through, supported by the numbers and opinions cited by the Committee on Climate Change, shows that we can only achieve the 80% emissions reduction in 2050 and accommodate aviation if we totally phase out the domestic gas grid. This in turn means we need to heat our homes electrically – a fact which has enormous implications. The arguments and numbers are set out in more detail in this linked document.

Domestic heating is a massive energy consumer, and because we only heat in winter, it poses real challenges for electricity suppliers. With our homes the way they are, even if we use efficient heat pumps, we will need more generating capacity that the total UK generation capacity today – and that’s before we factor in the projected population rise to 78 million by 2050! We would need to build a new nuclear power station every four months between 2015 and 2050, or install 3,000 new 3MW wind turbines a year – until we had 100,000 of them operating. Of course this would be in addition to the work we need to do to phase out existing fossil fuel generation.

We could reduce that power demand considerably with improved thermal efficiency in our homes, but to get the really big savings needs major rethinking of the way we heat, insulate, and reduce air losses. We cannot do this the way we are going. The policies we actually have in place today will give us a fraction of the energy performance we need, and will mean we have to strip it all out and start again before the job is finished. What we need is both a radically different approach to insulation and energy efficiency in our homes, and a significant expansion of electricity generating capacity. The cost is mind-blowing. It is likely to be of the order of £10-£20 billion each year for the next 35 years.

The tragedy is that there are ways we could tackle this. We could do it whilst stimulating the economy, and without an impossible build schedule for new nuclear or wind power. It would increase employment, encourage science and innovation, and go a long way to solving the climate problems. It would also make our houses nicer to live in, and make space for some new ones without eating up the green and pleasant landscape.

The trouble is – it needs strategic thinking and a plan. The market alone cannot deliver this – it has no collective purpose, and has no vision of the destination – it only responds to the moment. We can, however use the market for what it is good at – namely delivering what we want at the lowest cost. We just need to signal very clearly what we want, and for that we need to know what we want, and be consistent and honest in our assessment of the scale of the challenge.

The arguments are complex, and can’t be won simply by bold assertion. I hope to develop the thinking in three steps – with the data and sources fully referenced so that I can be picked up and corrected if or when I am wrong. Part one of the argument is here. It sets out the evidence for my assertions about phasing out domestic gas, how much power we need, and the likely costs. Parts two and three will, I hope, come in the next few weeks and look at what we need to do to deal with the housing, and how we might generate the power without breaking either the bank or the climate.

Part 1 – Failing to Plan – or Planning to Fail

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