Climate benefits of a natural gas bridge 'unlikely to be significant'

  • 29 May 2015, 13:30
  • Simon Evans
Industrial pipe bridge

Industrial pipe bridge | Shutterstock

Natural gas can only be a worthwhile bridge to a low carbon future if a series of tough conditions are met, according to a  working paper from the influential New Climate Economy initiative.

The paper says the climate benefits of gas, including shale gas, could in theory be significant. It suggests a 10% increase in global gas supplies could prevent 500 gigawatts (GW) of new coal capacity being added by 2035, avoiding 1.3 billion tonnes of annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

But it warns that any theoretical benefits could easily be wiped out without controls on methane leakage, limits on total energy use and targets to ensure low-carbon energy sources are not displaced.

Replacing coal

The North American shale gas revolution has helped  drive down emissions from US electricity supplies. The US shift from coal- to gas-fired power stations has been driven,  though perhaps only in part, by market forces because fracking has made US gas cheaper.

The US example is often cited as evidence that gas can act as a lower-carbon bridge to a low-carbon future. Gas advocates argue it could help the world avoid new coal-fired power stations and close down old ones, halving carbon emissions per unit of electricity in the process.

For instance in a  recent interview with Energy Post, Jérôme Ferrier, president of the International Gas Union says that gas, the "cleanest fossil fuel", can play a key role in limiting global warming. He says that the great challenge for the world is to move from coal to gas.

The new working paper, jointly authored by the New Climate Economy initiative and the Stockholm Environment Institute, questions the premise of the gas bridge.

First, it shows how emissions from relatively efficient "super-critical" coal plants can be halved with a switch to gas supplied through pipelines. In climate terms, this is the best-case scenario for added gas use, with each 1GW coal plant replaced by gas saving nearly 3 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

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Opposition to fracking increases again, finds Sunday Times poll

  • 18 May 2015, 17:00
  • Simon Evans

The British public is becoming increasingly opposed to fracking for shale gas, a series of polls for the Sunday Times show. However, as with some  previous polling on energy and climate issues commissioned by the paper, it has not reported the findings.

Support for shale gas extraction has fallen to its lowest level since the series began, falling below one third of respondents for the first time. Opposition has reached its highest level.

The latest survey also finds majority support for allowing or encouraging onshore windfarms and a strong majority in favour of the government either maintaining or scaling up its action on climate change.

Carbon Brief has the numbers, which should provide interesting reading for the  new Conservative government, given its  support for fracking and opposition to subsidised onshore wind.


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Analysis: How DECC spends its annual budget

  • 13 May 2015, 17:00
  • Simon Evans
Department for Energy and Climate Change

Carbon Brief

Update 4/6 - We have published further analysis of DECC's budget based on a breakdown released to Carbon Brief under Freedom of Information rules. You can read it here.

Update 16/5 - Chancellor George Osborne will announce his budget on 8 July. Departments are expected to submit spending proposals to the Treasury by early July, according to the Financial Times, giving time to negotiate details of any cuts before an autumn spending review.

Update 14/5 - A few clarifications are worth making. First, the £8 billion DECC budget in 2013/14 includes large accounting adjustments ("provisions") which do not reflect actual expenditure. This is better reflected by the £3.4 billion "departmental expenditure limits" budget shown further down.  We have amended text below to reflect this.

Second, nuclear clean-up spending relates to managing the legacy of the UK's historic civil and military nuclear programmes, including managing its plutonium stockpile. Finally the cost of supporting low-carbon power sources, including renewables, does not appear in DECC accounts as it is paid via energy bills.

The Conservatives have pledged to shave a further £13 billion from government spending over the next two years.

With the likes of health and overseas aid likely to be protected and welfare subject to a separate savings target, spending at other departments will be put under the microscope in search of potential cuts.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) "will be among the biggest casualties in terms of spending reductions", according to an  Independent article.

Carbon Brief runs through how DECC allocates its budget of around £8 billion a year, or just over one per cent of the total government budget.

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Investigation: Does the UK's biomass burning help solve climate change?

  • 11 May 2015, 12:00
  • Simon Evans

In the name of tackling climate change, the UK has become the largest importer of wood pellets in the world in just five years.

The UK's demand for wood pellets is set to break five million tonnes this year and perhaps 10 million within a few years, fuelling a growing global trade and vociferous debate between energy firms and NGOs.

Accounting methods mandated by government show burning wood in place of coal is shaving millions of tonnes off UK emissions, yet NGOs say separate government research shows the opposite.

So, does the UK's growing use of biomass for power generation help solve climate change or not? Carbon Brief guides you through the dense thicket of debate in search of answers.

Biomass Britain Infographic

The UK is the world's largest wood pellet importer and its increasing demand is fuelling a growing global trade in pellets. Drax power station, the largest UK user of these pellets, says most of its biomass comes from thinnings and residues. Source: Drax biomass supply report 2014, Ofgem figures and Carbon Brief analysis of UN Food and Agriculture Organization figures. Credit: Rosamund Pearce, Carbon Brief.

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19 reasons why the world is missing the 2C climate change limit

  • 07 May 2015, 09:45
  • Simon Evans

Pylons and roads | Shutterstock

The world is falling further behind the goal to avoid more than 2C of global warming despite rapid progress in renewables and other areas, according to a new assessment from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

For the first time since it started tracking progress, none of 19 key areas for tackling climate change are on track to meet their contribution towards a sub-2C world, says the IEA's Energy Technology Perspectives 2015, published on 4 May. It says five technologies or sectors are off track, and the outlook for the remaining 14 is failing to improve fast enough.

Carbon Brief has summarised the mammoth 412-page assessment in a single graphic, which shows where progress is falling furthest behind the path to 2C, and where there are rays of hope.


Progress in key technologies and sectors against climate milestones for a below-2C future. Source: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2015. Summary chart by Carbon Brief.

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Flawed assumptions blight Telegraph analysis of UK decarbonisation costs

  • 05 May 2015, 16:45
  • Simon Evans

There is a £200 billion "carbon bombshell" lurking at the heart of Labour's election manifesto according to today's Daily Telegraph. Its promise to decarbonise the power sector by 2030 could "wreak havoc with the UK's finances", according to a second article in the same paper.

The stories centre on Labour's manifesto promise to set a decarbonisation target for UK electricity, in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Labour would mandate a reduction from the 450 grammes of carbon dioxide emitted per megawatt hour of electricity generated today, to between 50 and 100 grammes in 2030.

The Telegraph analysis rests on a series of shaky assumptions. More significantly, however, it is flawed because it ignores the cost of the alternatives. Carbon Brief takes you through the details.

Flawed assumptions

The Telegraph says its £200 billion figure for the cost of a decarbonisation target is based on "educated guesses at best". Here are some of the trivially incorrect assumptions it makes.

The Telegraph says wholesale electricity prices will rise from around £40 per megawatt hour today to £55 in 2030. The paper does not explain how it arrived at this figure. DECC's central projection is £73, which would make top-up subsidies for low-carbon energy sources relatively cheaper. National Grid scenarios cover a range of £50 to £100 per megawatt hour in 2030. Future prices are highly uncertain.

Next, the Telegraph assumes that Labour aim for zero-carbon electricity in 2030 because its manifesto talks of "removing carbon" from electricity supplies. However, on a BBC Daily Politics debate on 20 April Caroline Flint, Labour's energy and climate change shadow, said the target would be in line with CCC advice. This would aim for 50-100gCO2 per megawatt hour.

The Telegraph then assumes, without offering any justification, that half of the UK's zero-carbon power in 2030 would be nuclear, up from 19% last year. It estimates the cost as the same as for building a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. The government says new nuclear plants will become cheaper through the 2020s, though nuclear has a poor record on cost.

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Election 2015: What the manifestos say on climate and energy

  • 21 Apr 2015, 12:35
  • Simon Evans

PlusONE |   Shutterstock

Update 21/4 - We added the DUP manifesto.

Update 20/4 - We added the SNP manifesto and Labour's Green Plan.

Update 17/4 - We added the Plaid Cymru manifesto.

Update 15/4 - We added the Liberal Democrat and UKIP manifestos.

Update 14/4 - We added the Conservative and Green Party manifestos.

The UK's closest election in a generation is now three weeks away. Carbon Brief is tracking the climate and energy content of the parties' manifestos as they are launched.

Labour went first on Monday 13 April, followed a day later by the Conservatives and Greens. The Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party launched on Wednesday 15 April. Other parties followed over the following week.

In contrast to 2010, climate change has barely featured on the campaign trail so far. That's despite - or perhaps because of - the joint climate pledge from the leaders of the three largest parties. This promised to work towards a legally-binding global climate deal, to agree new UK emissions-cutting goals and to phase out unabated coal-fired power.

Carbon Brief's climate and energy tracker will be updated through the week as the manifestos come in, allowing party policies to be compared side by side. The image below is a preview of the information available if you click through to the interactive online version.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 At 12.35.57

Carbon Brief's climate and energy election grid includes key extracts from the 2015 election manifestos along with commentary and links to further information. Click the image or this link for the full interactive version.

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Is BP's shareholder resolution really an "activist victory"?

  • 20 Apr 2015, 16:00
  • Sophie Yeo

M DOGAN / Shutterstock

Climate campaigners celebrated on Thursday as 98% of shareholders backed a  resolution forcing BP to come clean about the impact that climate change will have on its operations.

BP is a company which emits about the same volume of greenhouse gases as Norway. It has advocated for a global economy-wide price on carbon, yet also  scaled back its investments in renewable energy. Thanks to the resolution, it will have to be more transparent in the future about how it plans to move towards a greener business model.

The  Financial Times described the vote as a "major victory" for activists, while transparency pressure group  CDP called it "a game changing day".

Yet the resolution, though unusual, was not controversial. BP itself backed the motion, and it received the overwhelming support of shareholders across the board. A similar motion, backed by Shell, will be put to vote at their AGM on 19 May.

Carbon Brief looks at whether the resolution could change BP's approach to climate change for the better.

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Expert views: What the general election means for UK climate and energy policy

  • 17 Apr 2015, 15:15
  • Simon Evans

Update 21/4 - We added the views of Tim Rotheray.

Update 20/4 - We added the views of Professor Paul Ekins.

In three weeks, the UK will go to the polls in one of the closest-fought and least predictable elections in a generation. Carbon Brief has already pored over the political parties' manifesto views on climate and energy.

But the likelihood of a multi-party coalition makes extrapolating pre-election commitments into future government action a real challenge. Carbon Brief asked a range of experts for their views on the May 7 poll's implications, in particular:

  • What are the key climate and energy dividing lines for the election?

  • How do you see potential election outcomes affecting climate and energy policy, post-election and in the run-up to Paris?

Here's what they had to say:

Jim Watson, research director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex Science and Technology Policy Research Centre (SPRU):

"The large uncertainty about the outcome of the election, particularly the different coalitions that may emerge, makes it hard to predict what the next government's policy will look like. An important lesson of the 2010 election is that strong manifesto commitments by some parties could be traded off in post-election negotiations if the result is close.

"However, given the recent joint statement by Miliband, Cameron and Clegg, a strong commitment to continued emissions reductions is likely. There is much more uncertainty about specifics. If the Conservatives lead the next government, there would be more pressure to reduce funding for some low carbon technologies - including cost effective options like onshore wind. If a Labour-led government sees its plans through, this would mean significant regulatory upheaval - and a reinforcement of the more interventionist policies we have seen in the past few years."

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Climate showdown: Has the US, UK or Germany done more to cut emissions?

  • 10 Apr 2015, 16:10
  • Simon Evans

The UK and Germany like to think of themselves as climate leaders. But how does their progress in cutting carbon stack up against the US, which has famously failed to pass climate laws?

Over the past two weeks the results came in, with each country publishing carbon dioxide emissions figures for 2014. Carbon Brief slices up the data to find out who's winning the climate showdown.

Climate rule

In the UK, government ministers like to boast about the nation's progress. Carbon emissions were down 9.7% in 2014, a record fall for a growing UK economy. The UK must be doing something right because other countries are modelling their efforts on the UK's legally binding Climate Change Act, which the UK's three main political leaders recently promised to uphold.

The US, by contrast, has tried and failed many times to pass climate legislation. That's why the Obama administration is trying to use and extend existing laws to force through emissions-cutting regulation. Despite this modest record on climate rules, it's common to hear it claimed that the US is leading the way on cutting emissions because of shale gas.

Meanwhile, Germany's Energiewende, its generational push away from nuclear towards an energy-efficient and largely renewable economy, is frequently either lauded or derided in UK media as an example of how (or how not) to decarbonise.

Emissions records

The UK, US and Germany all published official carbon dioxide emissions estimates for 2014 at the end of March.

Carbon Brief already took a detailed look at the UK data, which showed a 9.7% drop in carbon emissions compared to 2013. The US data shows 2014 carbon emissions increased by 1% compared to a year earlier, while Germany's fell by 4.8%.

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