Analysis

UN report says energy efficiency integral to bridging emissions gap

  • 19 Nov 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope

Houses | Shutterstock

There's a disjoint between the emissions cuts countries say they're going to make and what needs to be done to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, according to the latest annual update to the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP)  Emissions Gap report.

To close the gap and limit climate change, the world is going to have to get a lot better at using energy smartly, it says.

Each year UNEP takes a different aspect of the world's energy economy to examine, in order to show how emissions could be curtailed. This year, it's the turn of energy efficiency. So what's the calculus on how using energy more intelligently could get us closer to two degrees?

Emissions gap

The impetus for this report is simple. Unless global emissions peak and decline in short order, the world will pass a point where global warming can be limited to two degrees.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent report calculated the  remaining amount of carbon dioxide humans can emit and still have a likely chance of limiting global warming to less than two degrees. It comes to about another 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

In 2012, global emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane were around 54 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. To meet that "carbon budget", UNEP calculates global emissions must be no higher than 44 gigatonnes in 2020, and 42 gigatonnes in 2030.

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Tackling climate while maximising oil extraction: UK-Canada meeting glosses the paradox

  • 19 Nov 2014, 14:25
  • Simon Evans

Alberta oil sands | Shutterstock

Ministers from the UK and Canada came together for a roundtable meeting on energy security on Tuesday to discuss issues including exports from the Canadian oil sands, oil sector regulation and carbon capture and storage.

The Canada Europe Energy Summit was held in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's opulent Locarno Suite. It was sponsored by energy firms including the UK's Centrica, owner of British Gas, and was attended by chief executives and chairmen of oil and gas players from Europe and North America, as well as Carbon Brief.

Attendees were met by banner-waving activists protesting against Canadian oil sands production. This prompted some delegates to reflect fondly on the annual event's more exotic 2011 protest, when a pair of underwear-clad protesters stood on the table and smeared each other with oil.

Themes at the meeting included frustration at "disinformation" spread by environmental groups and a push from Canada for its oil sands to be seen as a stable "baseload" source of oil, able to feed growing demand in a world of growing political instability.

Tackling climate change while maximising oil extraction

The importance of tackling climate change was noted by the UK's energy minister Matt Hancock and Canadian deputy minister for natural resources Bob Hamilton. Both also emphasised their intention to maximise the exploitation of domestic fossil fuel resources.

While it is economically rational for individual countries like the UK or Canada to try to maximise the economic benefits of their natural resources, about 80 per cent of known global fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we want a good chance of limiting warming to two degrees, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Fossil fuels are needed today and they will still be needed for some years to come, but sooner or later we will have to stop extracting them. If everyone takes the UK-Canada approach and attempts to maximise exploitation of fossil reserves, then presumably all the climate targets in the world aren't going to prevent dangerous warming.

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Germany debates programme to save 2020 climate target

  • 17 Nov 2014, 16:55
  • Mat Hope

Germany solar | Shutterstock

Germany plans to its cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. But three years of increasing emissions have raised questions about whether Germany can stick to its target.

The country's  environment minister is adamant that Germany will not relax decarbonisation targets. Today the energy and economics minister dismissed reports the target would be weakened.

The government is set to agree a new Climate Action Programme next month, designed to get the country's emissions back on track. But  a leaked draft shows a number of key issues are yet to be resolved.

The Energiewende's emissions gap

In 2010, Germany embarked on an ambitious programme to decarbonise its energy sector, known as  the Energiewende or 'energy transition'. The Energiewende set a  series of 2050 targets to guide Germany's climate and energy policy for the next 40 years.

To assess the Energiewende's progress, the government also set shorter-term targets. A goal to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels is just one of these.

But Germany's greenhouse gas emissions have been rising for the last three years, bringing this interim goal into question.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 16.36.51.png
Source:  Clean Energy Wir e

 

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Why the government adds green levies to household energy bills

  • 07 Nov 2014, 11:40
  • Mat Hope

Gas bill | Shutterstock

The government expects household energy bills to increase significantly over the next 15 years. But its energy and climate policies will help curb the rise, it argues, making households better-off than they otherwise would be.

It's become a familiar refrain from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

The media  has something of an obsession with whether the government's efforts to decarbonise the UK's energy sector  add to people's bills. Perhaps because of this, DECC appears to have stepped up its efforts to persuade us that its policies are beneficial to consumers.

Yesterday, it  updated its estimates of how the government's policies impact household energy bills. We take a look at what DECC expects to happen, and the assumptions behind its projections.

Bills in 2020

DECC expects an average household energy bill in 2020 will be £50 lower than today in real terms.

But its projections go further than this. DECC also says it expects households will pay £92 less in 2020 than they would if the government doesn't implement any climate or energy policies, such as subsidising low carbon energy projects or installing smart meters.

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Seven unexpected graphs about the UK’s energy sector

  • 30 Oct 2014, 12:45
  • Simon Evans & Mat Hope

Pylons and roads | Shutterstock

Sometimes our understanding of what's going on in the world is at odds with the facts - on issues ranging from  teen pregnancies and immigration to levels of voter turnout and the ethnic makeup of the UK.

The energy sector is no different, it seems.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) delivered one of its increasingly common  data dumps this morning.

We've delved through the  pile of stats to bring you seven graphs about energy in the UK that raise some questions about received wisdom in the area.

Energy costs aren't high, historically speaking

The media is fond of pointing out that households are paying more for  energy than they used to. This is true - but the data shows the cost of energy is a long way from being at historic highs.

The cost of electricity, gas and other fuels has been rising since it bottomed-out in 2004. Between 2002 and 2012 energy bills  increased by 55 per cent, after accounting for inflation. But the amount households spend on energy compared to other things is still relatively low. 

In the 1980s, energy bills represented over five per cent of a household's costs. In 2012, it was a little under 4 per cent:


Source:  DECC energy sector indicators 2013

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Five things we learned from National Grid's Winter Outlook report

  • 28 Oct 2014, 14:05
  • Simon Evans

Newspapers are this morning saying the UK is at increased risk of blackouts. The headlines are covering an annual report from the National Grid, which insists the lights will not be going out. Energy market regulator Ofgem and the government are also lining up behind the grid to reassure the public that the lights will stay on.

So what is the document that National Grid has published today? And does it tell us what state the UK energy system is in? We take a look at five things we learned from the National Grid Winter Outlook.

Power supply margins are tighter than last year

The UK's electricity system is in a state of flux. It's changing as power stations close down as a result of old age and more stringent pollution rules. At the same time we are building lots of renewables, mainly windfarms.

During this shift in the supply base, the buffer between peak demand for power and the maximum that can be generated (the capacity margin) is expected to shrink for a few years.

This shouldn't be a surprise. We saw very similar newspaper headlines warning of 'blackouts' in both 2012 and 2013.

National Grid has been busy planning for the change in our energy system for a while. What has been a surprise this year is the number of unexpected events, including several power station fires. These have reduced generating capacity and raised the volume of worried headlines.

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What is the emissions impact of switching from coal to gas?

  • 27 Oct 2014, 14:00
  • Mat Hope

Arizona gas | Shutterstock

The US's shale gas boom is credited with helping the country cut power sector emissions 16 per cent since 2007.  Official figures released earlier this week suggest a switch from coal to gas was largely responsible for the drop.

But there are competing theories. Last week,  Greenpeace released analysis with the headline 'Renewables cutting US emissions more than gas as coal consumption drops'.  Business Green and  Thinkprogress reported the finding, amongst others.  

So why are the US's emissions falling?

Fuel 'switching'

Figuring out why the power sector's emissions change is quite hard, and relies on lots of assumptions about how the energy market works.

The US gets power mainly from coal, gas, renewables and nuclear. By analysing changes in this mix, it should be possible to work out how switching from one fuel to another affects emissions.

Data from the US's Energy Information Administration shows how much power each fuel generated over a particular timeframe.

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Q&A: The EU's 2030 climate targets

  • 24 Oct 2014, 16:45
  • Simon Evans

Last night EU leaders came to a compromise deal on climate targets for 2030.

The headline target is to cut EU emissions by "at least" 40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030. The EU has also agreed targets to get at least 27 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and to cut energy use by at least 27 per cent against business as usual.

Is the deal ambitious and world-leading, as some EU countries are claiming? Or is it more a case of bungs to the Polish coal industry and weak ambition on energy saving and renewables?

We take you through the essential questions about the 2030 deal.

How ambitious is the EU being?

The EU announcement is certainly world-leading in at least one sense: it is the first major player to lay down its commitment to tackling climate change out to 2030. UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon says the target demonstrates the continued global climate leadership of the EU.

The likes of China and the US are expected to take note when deciding their own commitments in the run up to next year's talks in Paris, where a global climate deal is due to be signed.

In this context the two little words, "at least", are all-important.

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The gas industry's delicate climate policy balancing act

  • 23 Oct 2014, 15:39
  • Mat Hope

Credit: US Department of Energy

European leaders are currently meeting to discuss the future of the region's climate and energy policy. Today, representatives of the gas industry called for ambitious changes to ensure the EU hits its ambitious emissions reduction goal without jeopardising their commercial interests.

"Dealing with climate change is a long term issue," Elisabeth Tørstad, CEO of fossil fuel industry advisers DNV told an audience of experts at the Financial Times' gas summit today. Tørstad was part of a panel tasked with assessing current threats to the European gas industry.

So how enthusiastic is the gas industry feeling about climate policy?

Carbon pricing

If the gas industry wants to help cut emissions and boost it's own prospects, the biggest obstacle is Europe's dysfunctional carbon market, the panel agreed.

EU leaders are due to discuss a  suite of reforms to the emissions trading scheme (EU ETS) this week. Passing those reforms is an "opportunity that has to be seized", says Dick Benschop, vice president of Shell's gas market development.

It might seem odd that an industry that would bear much of the economic cost of those reforms should be so keen to see them implemented. But there's an obvious reason for the gas industry to support a price on carbon: it could help squeeze coal out of Europe's energy mix.

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US emissions increase hints at limitations of Obama’s clean power plan

  • 22 Oct 2014, 17:10
  • Mat Hope

President Obama | Shutterstock

US energy sector emissions increased slightly in 2013, according to new data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). This may seem like bad news for President Obama, who has pledged to cut the country's emissions 17 per cent by 2020.

Obama unveiled his  clean power plan earlier this year to much fanfare. The centrepiece of the plan is to reduce emissions from electricity generation by 30 per cent by 2020.

The US's rising energy sector emissions seem to  suggest the policy may not be as effective as Obama hopes.

Obama's clean power plan specifically targets emissions from power generation, which accounts for   about 32 per cent of the US's total emissions. Cutting emissions from the US's homes and businesses is a much smaller part of his wider   Climate Action Plan.

The EIA's data shows the potential limitations of focusing on cutting power generation emissions without addressing the country's broader energy consumption.

Emissions increase

US energy sector emissions increased 2.5 per cent in 2013 compared to year before, the EIA's data shows. The EIA says the main reason for the increase was colder weather.

Winter temperatures at the start of 2013 were lower than a year before, and the US also experienced a particularly mild spring last year. Temperatures fell again later in the year, when the US was  engulfed by the polar vortex.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 16.15.40.png
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average monthly temperatures. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Households and businesses turned up their thermostats in response to the lower temperatures, which meant burning a lot more gas and a bit more oil. The residential sector was responsible for 48 per cent of 2013's emissions increase, mostly due to heat demand, the EIA says.

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