Ed Davey's defence of UK gas policy doesn't give the full picture
- 30 May 2012, 13:40
- Robin Webster
Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey has a
letter in the Guardian today defending UK government policy on
gas against the accusation that it threatens our climate change
targets. He backs up his point by quoting the Committee on Climate Change
(CCC). But a closer look at the CCC's statement shows his quote to
be somewhat selective - and it certainly doesn't convey the
committee's full meaning.
So what's the argument about? An article by
George Monbiot yesterday, headlined 'Britain's climate change
policy is going up in smoke', criticised the government's
new energy bill. Part of the bill caps the amount of carbon
dioxide that new power stations can produce, which may sound like
good news for the UK's climate
change targets. But the problem is that the limit - set at 450
grams of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt-hour of electricity -
doesn't affect gas power plants, which generally emit below
400g/KWh. And gas power plants constructed now will be subject to
that same limit up until 2045.
When government first set out this rule in a
press release late one Friday night, environmentalists were
horrified by the idea that gas power plant built now can go on
emitting carbon dioxide at the same level for another thirty years
without anything to stop them.
Monbiot argues that the bill is:
"a rupture of the cross-party consensus
on climate change, and the abandonment of the carbon budgets
required to meet the 2050 target."
Davey disagrees. He quotes the CCC:
"The Committee on Climate Change
says our approach "could be compatible with power sector
decarbonisation required to meet carbon budgets" - provided we
reform the electricity market to secure low-carbon investment."
Well.....yes. But this isn't really a full representation of
what the committee said. The text the energy secretary is quoting
can be found in a
letter that Adair Turner, the chair of the CCC, sent to Ed
Davey at the end of March.
The CCC sent the letter in response to the government's
announcement of the new gas policy. It says:
"The approach set out in the
announcement could be compatible with power sector decarbonisation
required to meet carbon budgets, but also carries the risk that
there will be too much gas-fired generation instead of low carbon
Presumably the second half of the last sentence wasn't quite so
useful to Davey's point, so he left it off.
As Davey says, the CCC then goes on to discuss the electricity
market reform (EMR) package, which was formally announced as the
new energy bill last week. The letter states that the EMR measures
"should bring forward low-carbon investments", ensuring that by
2030 gas-fired generation is only used occasionally to back up
intermittent renewable generation, rather than all the time.
Adair Turner's letter however then goes on to add that under the
"...there is a risk that a greater role
for gas-fired generation would be allowed...and would ensue if
there were limited investment in low-carbon generation.
"For example, if the 30 GW of gas-fired
capacity were to generate as baseload plant in 2030, this would
raise average emissions to 200 gCO2/kWh (i.e. beyond the limits
implied by carbon budgets)."
Turner's letter ends:
"In order to mitigate this risk, it is
important that a clear decarbonisation objective is set for the
EMR, and that a process is put in place to ensure that this
objective is achieved. This would help to resolve some of the
uncertainties that currently undermine the investment climate for
low-carbon power generation."
Back in 2008, the CCC
recommended if we are going to hit the targets in the climate
change act, the government needs to achieve a "substantial
decarbonisation of the power sector" by 2030. As Monbiot points
out, however, the
draft energy bill instead states on p.10 that "power sector
emissions need to be largely decarbonised by the 2030s" which a)
isn't quite the same thing as 'by 2030' and b) isn't a target.
So the energy bill does not contain a "clear decarbonisation
objective" which the CCC sees as necessary to prevent a dash for
gas which would blow our carbon budgets.
The graph below is
taken from one of the CCC's documents. The blue line shows its
recommendations for the changes that are needed in the power sector
over the next few decades, if we're going to hit our climate change
Davey is right to argue we need a "diverse energy portfolio" and
that gas is necessary as a part of the mix, particularly as backup
to renewables. But he isn't right to suggest that the CCC's work
supports the view that current government policy is going to drive
down emissions from the power sector to the extent it
UPDATE 1pm 31st May: An edit was made to indicate that gas power
plant "generally emit below 400g/KWh", rather than emit