Briefing: What is the EU's energy union?

  • 06 Feb 2015, 10:55
  • Simon Evans

EU flags | Shutterstock

  • Senior officials are meeting in Riga, Latvia to discuss the EU energy union.
  • The idea was launched last year by the European Council's Polish president, Donald Tusk, as a response to Russia's annexation of the Crimea.
  • The energy union appears to mean different things to different people.
  • Some want it to emphasise energy security, others energy efficiency or decarbonisation.
  • The European Commission will publish the official strategy on 25 February.

Senior officials from across the EU are gathering today in the Latvian capital Riga to discuss the creation of an EU energy union.

In April 2014, European Council president and former Polish prime minister  Donald Tusk launched the idea for an energy union in an  article for the Financial Times, primarily as a response to the Crimea crisis and Russian aggression over gas contracts.

Tusk's proposed energy union emphasised energy security above all. It called for region-wide purchasing of gas, linking and strengthening the EU's electricity transmission systems, and making "full use" of EU fossil fuel reserves including coal and shale gas.

Since then, the concept has evolved into a more holistic and rounded strategy, as set out by the European Commission in a widely leaked draft paper. A separate paper, more closely aligned to Tusk's vision, is expected from Latvia, which holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency and is hosting today's conference.

Until the commission publishes its energy union framework strategy on 25 February, member states and lobby groups will be battling to impose their preferred vision on the final outcome.

The Draft EU strategy

The leaked commission paper sets out an energy union of five interlinked topics, or 'dimensions'. Each dimension includes a series of 'actions', many of which relate to existing policy commitments. There are some new initiatives, however, and the overall tone of the paper shows how far the energy union has shifted since Tusk's April 2014 article.

Here's a quick rundown of the five dimensions.

Read more

National carbon market on the horizon for China

  • 05 Feb 2015, 13:05
  • Mat Hope

Beijing smog | Shutterstock

China has been experimenting with provincial carbon-market schemes over the past four years. Government officials are now suitably convinced that a national market could begin in mid-2016,  Reuters reports.

But progress will likely be slow as China seeks to avoid the problems  currently hobbling the EU's scheme. Carbon Brief looks at how China's pilot schemes are progressing, and what the next steps are to creating the world's largest carbon market.

Current schemes

China has pledged to ensure its emissions peak in 2030 as part of  an historic deal with the US, signed in November last year. It will implement a range of regulations and schemes to make that happen, including a national carbon market.

In preparation, China's government established seven pilot programmes in 2011 to see if carbon markets could work in a Chinese context. The government plans to expand and link these markets to form large regional schemes, before converting those into a  national market in 2016.  

China has been relatively slow to jump on the carbon-market bandwagon. The EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS) - currently, the world's largest - was set up in 2005. There are now 46 carbon  markets operating worldwide.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.51.16.pngSource: Data from China Carbon. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Read more

Shale gas remains UK’s most divisive energy source, poll shows

  • 03 Feb 2015, 11:25
  • Mat Hope

The public remains divided on whether the UK should exploit its shale gas resources, new government polling shows.

The statistics come a week after Lancashire council  delayed a decision on whether to permit fracking at two sites, due to concerns over noise and traffic.

The shale gas circus has been in town for a couple of years now. In that time, protesters have taken to the streets and gone home again,  companies have fired up their drills and shut them down, and Scotland cautiously welcomed and then  banned the industry.

It seems such drama has split the public, with similar numbers of people opposing and supporting fracking. The data shows that, of all the UK's energy options, shale gas remains the most divisive.

Opinion split

The latest round of the Department of Energy and Climate Change's (Decc)  public attitude tracker survey shows 24 per cent of the public support extracting shale gas, while 23 per cent are opposed.

When Decc conducted the poll last September, 26 per cent supported shale gas extraction, with 27 per cent opposing it.

The results are slightly different to a  Sunday Times/YouGov poll conducted a few weeks later, but also released this week. That survey showed 35 per cent of people support fracking, with 41 per cent against it.

Sources:  Decc and  Sunday Times/YouGov. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Read more

Coal carbon capture could increase future climate risks, study finds

  • 03 Feb 2015, 07:00
  • Simon Evans

Coal-fired power stations should be replaced by low-carbon energy sources rather than retrofitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS), according to new research from the University of Oxford.

The study dents the idea that coal can be compatible with climate action as long as it uses CCS. It says finite CCS capacity should be held in reserve in case negative emissions technologies are needed to return dangerous greenhouse gas concentrations to a safe level after 2050.

The new report on Stranded Carbon Assets and Negative Emissions Technologies is published today by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

Stranded assets

The idea that companies could be sitting on fossil fuel assets they can't burn if the world tackles climate change has now hit the mainstream. One study found nearly 90 per cent of the world's coal reserves are unburnable if we're to avoid dangerous warming.

A counter-argument is that firms could carry on burning coal while capturing the emissions through CCS. Smith School analysis suggests this has the potential to capture 125 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in total by 2050, against today's annual coal emissions of around 12 gigatonnes.

So coal plants could have another 10 years of business-as-usual operation without eating into carbon budgets, if they used all available CCS capacity to capture their emissions.

Negative emissions technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere could extend the operating life of coal plants even further, again assuming only coal emissions are offset.

The Smith School report looks at what types of negative emissions technologies are available and how much breathing space they might inject into the carbon budget for two degrees.

Read more

Nuclear power additions 'need to quadruple' to hit climate goals, IEA says

  • 31 Jan 2015, 14:50
  • Simon Evans

Nuclear power station | Shutterstock

The world needs to quadruple the rate it is adding nuclear power capacity to the grid by the 2020s if it is to meet climate targets, according to a new report from thinktank the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The  2015 technology roadmap for nuclear energy, published jointly with the Nuclear Energy Agency, suggests nuclear power capacity needs to more than double by 2050 as part of cost-effective efforts to limit warming to two degrees.

Carbon Brief takes you through the roadmap's findings and its recommendations for securing a nuclear contribution to avoiding dangerous climate change.

Contributing to climate goals

The IEA takes an all-of-the-above approach to cutting emissions. Its executive director Maria van der Hoeven says all low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, will be required for the "energy revolution" we need to meet climate goals.

Nuclear-free scenarios that successfully combat climate change have been  developed by other organisations, but they would require extremely ambitious efforts across areas including energy efficiency, land-use change and diets that not all experts believe to be achievable.

So to what extent might emissions be reduced by ramping up nuclear power, according to the IEA? Under its two degrees scenario, it thinks nuclear power capacity will need to more than double by 2050, to 930 gigawatts. That's significantly less optimistic than the  IEA's 2010 nuclear roadmap, which put 2050 nuclear capacity at 1,200 gigawatts.

Most additional capacity will be in China (the lilac area in the chart below). Other growth areas include Russia, India and the UK, which has "one of the most ambitious newbuild programmes" in the OECD group of wealthier nations, according to the IEA. These plans include the high-profile Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset, among others.

Credit:  IEA 2015 technology roadmap for nuclear energy

Read more

New US poll shows gap between scientists, the public, and politicians on climate change

  • 30 Jan 2015, 12:30
  • Mat Hope

Crowd outside Congress | Shutterstock

The US Congress  set up a showdown with the Barack Obama yesterday over the approval of the  controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Most members of Congress argue it's necessary for the country's energy security. The president is concerned about the impact that extracting, transporting, and burning the oil could have on climate change.

New polling data shows the vast majority of the US's scientists and growing numbers of the public share the president's concern about how human activity may impact climate change. It suggests that the views of politicians are increasingly at odds with the country's climate scientists.

Causes of climate change

Growing numbers of US adults attribute climate change to human activities, new data from the  Pew Research Centre shows. But there's a big discrepancy between the public, politicians, and scientists' views on climate change.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 11.04.43.png
Sources: Public and scientists,  Pew Research Centre. Congress, the  Centre for American Progress. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Read more

Coal returns as most-used fuel for electricity generation, new government statistics show

  • 29 Jan 2015, 12:00
  • Mat Hope

Spinning turbines | Shutterstock

After being briefly displaced by gas, coal returned to its place as the UK's most used fuel for electricity generation towards the end of 2014, new government statistics show.

At the same time, low-carbon electricity generation fell slightly as two nuclear power reactors were unexpectedly taken offline and wind speeds slowed.

The data shows the UK's continued reliance on the most carbon-intensive fuel source for its power, and the energy system's sensitivity to international fuel-price volatility.

Carbon Brief goes through the Department of Energy and Climate Change's latest  energy trends statistics, which provides data up to the end of November 2014. 

Coal use increases

Gas was the most used fuel for electricity generation during the third quarter of 2014, bucking a long-term trend. But, in November, coal generation overtook gas generation for the first time in five months.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 At 11.40.04
Source:  DECC energy trends, UK electricity supply

Read more

In depth: Infrastructure bill amendments on fracking, fossil fuels, and zero carbon homes

  • 27 Jan 2015, 12:15
  • Mat Hope

Credit: Docklandsboy

  • MPs vote to increase restrictions on fracking.
  • Conservatives and Labour claim credit for creating a positive investment environment for UK shale gas industry.
  • Government agrees to obligation to outline how fracking fits within the UK's climate targets.
  • Industry react positively to amendments. Environmental groups fear changes are superficial.
  • Opposition fails to remove a clause obligating the UK to "maximise" oil and gas extraction.
  • Infrastructure bill leaves House of Commons with watered-down proposal for building new zero-carbon homes.

MPs yesterday voted to increase restrictions on fracking while continuing to try and maximise exploitation of the UK's oil and gas reserves. They also voted to water down a commitment to provide zero-carbon homes.

All three items were contained in the mammoth  infrastructure bill. The energy and climate provisions were the focus of what has become an increasingly partisan fight to dictate the future direction of the UK's energy and climate policy.


The most high-profile amendments to the bill were around the issue of whether the UK should go "all out" for shale gas. After several hours of debating, amendments were included to increase the stringency of regulations dictating where shale-gas companies can explore, and place further obligations on the government to explain how fracking fits with the UK's broader climate-change goals.

Before the debate, the parties made clear their positions on whether the government should support the nascent industry. Conservatives MPs, and  the chancellor in particular, are  very keen. Labour is willing to permit fracking with some additional checks. Some Liberal Democrats and the Greens remain staunchly against any fracking.

An amendment put forward by Labour for a fracking moratorium was rejected by 308 votes to 52. The government accepted an opposition amendment to allow fracking with "appropriate regulation and monitoring", broadly in line with recommendations from an  Environmental Audit Committee report released yesterday.


Read more

Survey shows partisan split among MPs on climate and energy issues

  • 26 Jan 2015, 16:55
  • Mat Hope

Credit: Docklandsboy

With one hundred days to go until the election, analysts are eagerly looking for ways to differentiate between the parties. New data suggests MPs' views on energy and climate change could do just that.

Political analysts Dods asked 100 MPs what they thought about the scientific consensus around climate change and their energy preferences. Here's what they had to say.

Climate change

A large majority of the MPs surveyed, 72 out of 100, said they thought more than 75 per cent of scientists attributed climate change mainly to human activities. It was by far the most common answer for MPs from all the parties.

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 16.15.24.png
Source:  Dods Energy Preference Briefing. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Read more

Briefing: India’s energy and climate change challenge

  • 26 Jan 2015, 11:45
  • Mat Hope

Old Delhi | Shutterstock

The US and India have signed a deal to "enhance cooperation" on cutting emissions and investing in low carbon energy sources. The countries agreed the deal during President Obama's  state visit to meet India's prime minister Narendra Modi this weekend.

Last time the president visited one of the world's foremost developing economies, China, he signed an  historic deal on climate change. As the world's third largest emitter, India is coming under increasing pressure to  follow suit.

The new US-India pact is weaker than the agreement Obama signed in Beijing. But there are a number of good reasons India is reluctant to take strong action to curb its emissions in the short term.

Carbon Brief takes a look at the factors likely to shape India's energy and climate choices in the coming years, and what it means for the world's efforts to tackle climate change.

india challenges

Population and poverty

India has become noticeably more progressive on climate change under  prime minister Narendra Modi. It remains adamant that the world's developed economies must shoulder most of the responsibility for curbing emissions, however.

Read more