Conservatives call for a new environmentalism to resolve party divisions over climate change

  • 26 Feb 2014, 16:00
  • Mat Hope


Conservative political ideals should naturally lead the government to implement policies which preserve the environment and tackle climate change, a new report argues.

Prime minister David Cameron pledged to make his government the 'greenest' ever back in 2010. But since the Conservatives came to power, the party seems to have undergone something of an identity crisis, with the government's environmental agenda suffering a number of setbacks.

Now, a group of Conservative politicians and thinkers is seeking to reclaim an environmentalist agenda they see as dominated by those on the left. The Conservative Environmental Network's (CEN) report calls for Conservative leaders to promote a climate action agenda based on conservationism and free market ideals.

CEN's report isn't the first attempt to lay out the core principles of a new Conservative environmentalism, however. Last month, a group of Conservative MPs and peers, known as the 2020 group,  called for new policies to make the economy less wasteful, and more environmentally robust.

But while the 2020 group's report focused on the economic benefits of adopting environmentally friendly policies, it studiously tiptoed around the issue of climate change. In contrast, CEN's report  isn't afraid to tackle climate policy specifically, as part of a wider set of environmental policies.

Climate change and environmental stewardship

CEN's report lays out why Conservatives should spearhead environmental stewardship policies, including those that tackle climate change.

"Environmentalists, if they're honest with themselves, should be Conservatives", argues Roger Scruton, senior fellow at Conservative thinktank the Ethics and Public Policy Centre.

Read more

Climate engineering may do more harm than good, according to new research

  • 25 Feb 2014, 16:00
  • Mat Hope

Daniel Julie

From dumping iron filings in the ocean to spraying artificial clouds, scientists are starting to consider some unconventional ways to tackle climate change. Some policymakers hope these techniques could one day make up for failing to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. But climate engineering's side effects make it a risky fallback plan, new research suggests.

Even if climate engineering was rolled out immediately, it would be an "ineffective" way to tackle climate change, according to a new paper published in Nature Communications today.

Researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Germany modelled how a range of climate engineering techniques could constrain global warming over the coming decades. Thier results suggest the dangers that come with climate engineering could outweigh its benefits.

Climate engineering techniques

Climate engineering techniques can be broadly separated into two categories. Carbon dioxide reduction methods adjust planetary conditions so more of the gas can be absorbed from the atmosphere, while solar radiation management techniques seek to reduce how much the sun warms the planet.

Most climate engineering techniques work in theory, but none have been tried on a large scale.

Read more

What climate change policy could mean for Scottish independence and the future of North Sea oil

  • 24 Feb 2014, 16:00
  • Mat Hope


The North Sea's oil and gas fields look set to become a political battleground for the next seven months. The prime minister today  announced new measures he hopes will bolster the industry for decade to come, in a move designed to woo Scottish voters ahead of the independence referendum next September. But beneath the politicking is the wider issue of what the UK plans to do with its remaining fossil fuels as it tries to decarbonise the energy sector.

Keeping the industry alive

Last year, the government commissioned former oil company chairman Sir Ian Wood to write a report on the future of North Sea oil and gas. The final  draft, released today, estimates there could be up to 24 billion barrels of oil still waiting to be tapped. But it's getting ever-harder to access, and that's where the UK government comes in.

Wood's report says the North Sea has already provided 42 billion barrels of oil and gas. But much of this was extracted from wells which are becoming increasingly depleted. In order to get to the rest, companies are going to have to drill fresh wells in geologically trickier spots.

Read more

Floods have ended political debate about climate change impacts, argues former energy minister

  • 17 Feb 2014, 10:40
  • Mat Hope

Policy Exchange

Poor energy policy can "bring down governments" warned former energy minister Charles Hendry. That makes it a scary job for politicians naturally preoccupied with staying in power, particularly as climate change returns as a political issue.

Hendry spent five years watching from the opposition benches as shadow energy minister while a series of Labour politicians struggled with one of the country's most high profile policy portfolios. When the Conservatives formed a coalition government In 2010, the prime minister handed him the brief, before replacing him in 2012 with John Hayes - ending Hendry's seven years at the sharp end of UK energy politics.

So, what advice does he have for those now occupying the berth? Speaking to a room of students at scholars at the UK Energy Research Centre's headquarters in Imperial College last week, Hendry said making good energy policy is all about risk management - and that includes thinking about the dangers posed by climate change.

Hendry said the storms and flooding still battering parts of the UK have fundamentally changed the political debate around addressing the impacts of climate change.

Hendry argued that the recent extreme weather should finally "put to bed" political arguments around the need to reduce energy sector emissions, and make it easier to persuade his colleagues in the Conservative party that investing in low carbon energy sources is worthwhile.

Read more

New research: Arctic and tar sand oil production is ‘incompatible’ with limiting global warming

  • 14 Feb 2014, 13:10
  • Mat Hope


Governments wishing to eke out their domestic oil supplies are increasingly encouraging 'unconventional' fossil fuel exploration, as new technology allows companies to access difficult to reach resources. But such policies sit uneasily with climate goals.

In 1992, countries signed up to United Nations Framework on Climate Change, pledging to try and prevent the world warming by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. That means significantly curbing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the energy sector.

But many governments that agreed to the goal continue to implement policies which encourage oil extraction. A new  paper by two University College London professors, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, suggests that's a problem, because extracting and burning oil emits a lot of greenhouse gases, with unconventional sources usually emitting the most.

McGlade and Ekins estimate around 600 billion barrels - or 45 per cent - of the world's known oil reserves will have to remain unused, if the world wants to have a better than even chance of keeping warming below two degrees.

'Unburnable' oil

Estimates of how much of the planet's oil may eventually be extracted are gradually increasing as companies develop technology which lets them tap harder to reach wells.

McGlade and Ekins say such practices are "simply incompatible" with limiting global temperature rises, however. The researchers modelled oil production across the world for the next 20 years, and worked out how emissions from the extraction process and burning oil sat within a 'budget' that would let the planet limit global warming to two degrees.

Read more

Dredging, drainage, and Defra: A flooding glossary

  • 12 Feb 2014, 12:35
  • Mat Hope

Nick Chipchase

One story has dominated newspapers over the last couple of months: flooding. Since Christmas, the UK has been beset by storms and heavy rainfall, causing river banks to burst and journalists to go into overdrive. Among the swathes of commentary is some pretty technical language, and it's not always clear what - or why - certain things matter.

Here's our guide to the key terms.

Heavy rainfall

Sometimes when it rains, it pours. And when it pours, parts of the UK sometimes flood.

There's certainly  been a lot of rain over the last couple of months. Official Met Office figures show this winter brought with it one of the most exceptional periods of rainfall in England and Wales in at least 248 years, when records began. When the two months are combined, it was the wettest December and January in the UK as a whole since 1910.

The rainfall has hit the south fastest. In January, parts of the southern England received more than 200 per cent of the average rainfall for the month - shown in dark blue in the maps below.

Met Office Record _rainfall

Jet stream

The jet stream is a thin, fast-flowing ribbon of air high up in the atmosphere that acts to steer weather systems towards the UK. Storms usually follow a pathway across land and ocean, known as a storm track. The position of the storm track is largely determined by the jet stream.

Read more

Climate policy without the greenery: Is this the new face of Conservative environmentalism?

  • 04 Feb 2014, 16:00
  • Mat Hope

Dorcas Sinclair

The Conservatives entered the 2010 elections promising voters that if they wanted to 'go green' they needed to 'vote blue'. But the Conservative party's climate change agenda has suffered a number of setbacks since David Cameron set foot in number 10 four years ago. The government has  rolled back a number of key climate policies, and the prime minister allegedly pledging to cut the "green crap" from people's energy bills.

Yesterday, a group of Tory politicians made a bid to reboot the party's environmental agenda - and they're being very careful how they talk about the plans.

Climate policy without the greenery

A group of self-acclaimed "progressive" Conservatives yesterday launched a  report they hope will get the party's environmental agenda back on track.

The report was authored by a set of MPs and peers called the "2020 Group", which includes climate minister Greg Barker and  "green champion" Laura Sandys. The Guardian described the report as the  "pro-Green Tory" manifesto, and claims it is intended to push back against the influence of climate skeptic party members.  

It's not immediately obvious that the report has much to do with climate or environmental policy, however. Notably, the word "green" doesn't appear once.

Instead of promoting policies explicitly aimed at tackling climate change, or preserving the UK's green and pleasant land, the report proposes ways to make the economy less wasteful and more efficient.

It certainly has some eye-catching policy proposals.

Read more

In brief: Why the UK's new nuclear deal may fall foul of EU law

  • 03 Feb 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope


The UK's plan to build a new nuclear plant has hit a fresh stumbling block after the European Commission sent the government a letter questioning the deal's legality on Friday. We summarise the commission's  "damning critique" of the UK's new nuclear deal.

In October, the government signed a deal with energy company EDF to build a new nuclear power plant - the UK's first in 20 years. But the commission is stalling over the deal as it is unconvinced the plan is fair, or that the new nuclear plant will help the EU meet its broader goals.

The deal

If built, the new power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset could generate about three gigawatts of nuclear power - enough to power around five million homes,  according to EDF. The government says the deal is central to its plans to decarbonise the UK's energy sector, while providing a reliable source of electricity.

As such, it agreed to:

  • Guarantee EDF will receive around £90 per megawatt hour for power from the plant through the wholesale price and a top-up paid through customers' bills.
  • Underwrite the loans needed to build the plant to the tune of £10 billion.

(See this blog for much more detail on the deal).

Read more

How much energy did the Young Ones use? Home energy use through the decades

  • 31 Jan 2014, 09:00
  • Mat Hope & Christian Hunt

Credit: Lifeofgalileo

A lot has changed in 40 years. Disco is now retro, flares are set off at football matches, and the Good Life is a vague aspiration, rather than a TV show. All this you already knew.

But did you also know that carbon dioxide emissions from heating, lighting, and electrifying an average UK house have almost halved in that time?

A new  study by design consultancy Cambridge Architectural Research, done for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, sheds light on how household energy use has changed over the last four decades.

Read more

Carbon Briefing: Who killed the EU’s transport fuel standards?

  • 30 Jan 2014, 13:00
  • Ros Donald

Credit: National Wildlife Federation

Is the fuel that powers our cars set to get a lot dirtier? After 2020, the European Union is to drop the Fuel Quality Directive, a measure designed to help clean up transport fuels. Environmental and business groups have called the decision a coup for Canada's tar sands industry - but who really engineered it? The answers may be subtler.

The fight to make fuels cleaner

While the EU's emissions in other sectors are going down, emissions from transport keep growing. The EU has introduced measures to tackle this trend, such as standards for new cars and including aviation in emissions trading.  But it also wants to make sure EU vehicles are using the least polluting fuels.

In 2009, the EU announced the  Fuel Quality Directive (FQD), which requires a six per cent reduction between 2010 and 2020 in the greenhouse gas intensity of all the petrol, diesel and biofuels used for transport.  The measure is part of the EU's current suite of climate and energy targets, which create an emissions reduction pathway up until 2020.

When petrol combusts in a tank, the emissions tend to be similar, no matter where the fuel comes from. So cleaning up fossil fuels requires taking a look at the processes used to extract the fuel.

Under article 7a of the law the EU is expected to calculates fuels' emissions intensity on a lifecycle basis, starting from when fuels are extracted and ending when they are emitted as exhaust from cars and lorries.

But although the directive has existed for nearly five years - and is used to calculate biofuels' overall emissions - it has never been used to regulate fossil fuels. That's because member states can't agree on a methodology for calculating lifecycle emissions.

Greener-minded politicians and environmental campaigners have been  urging the commission to adopt a directive. They are concerned that without it, the EU will start to get a lot more of its transport fuels from much more carbon-intensive sources like oil derived from  oil sands.

Read more