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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 investment."

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 new policy

"...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 targets:

Screen Shot 2012-05-30 At 13.36.41

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 recommends.

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UPDATE 1pm 31st May: An edit was made to indicate that gas power plant "generally emit below 400g/KWh", rather than emit "about 400g/KWh".

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