Analysis

Mind the gap: the holes in UK climate policy

  • 15 Jul 2014, 11:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 raghavvidya

The UK will miss its legally-binding carbon budgets in future without new policies, according to the government's Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The UK's first ever carbon budget running from 2008 to 2012 was met, the CCC says in its latest Progress Report, and there has been good progress on car fuel efficiency, installing more efficient boilers and building wind turbines. But that's about where the good news for government ends.

The first budget was met largely because of the 2008 economic crisis slashing industrial output and ripping a hole in consumers' pockets, the CCC says. Lower output and lower demand reduced the need to burn fossil fuels in power stations, cars and boilers.

Without the impact of the crash and a particularly cold winter in 2010, emissions would have fallen by around 1 per cent per year between 2007 and 2012. To meet the fourth carbon budget in 2027 that rate will need to triple.

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Funding boost nudges UK carbon capture and storage industry forwards

  • 09 Jul 2014, 11:25
  • Mat Hope

White Rose

The world uses a lot of fossil fuels - and there's plenty left to burn, if we want to - with all of the world's major economies still relying on coal, oil, and gas to provide most of their power. But the more countries burn, the more difficult it becomes to constrain global warming.

The trouble is, it's difficult to quickly swap a fossil fuel based energy system for one that's low-carbon. It takes considerable time and money to replace coal and gas with nuclear and renewables.

There is a technology that promises to allow continued fossil fuel use while providing emissions cuts, however - carbon capture and storage (CCS). In theory, CCS technology can capture emissions from fossil fuel power plants and lock them underground. That could allow power plants to burn fossil fuels with a fraction of the emissions.

For energy companies and governments wanting to tackle climate change, that's good news. But the bad news is that CCS has so far struggled to get off the ground, and is yet to be proven in a full scale power plant.

After nearly a decade of false starts, the UK's CCS industry is slowly getting moving. Earlier this year, the government allocated  £100 million to two new demonstration projects. Today, the European Union awarded one of those projects  €300 million for its next phase of development. After a long series of disappointments, the industry is hoping all the pieces are in place to make CCS a success.

Potential

It's increasingly likely that the world will need carbon capture and storage in a big way if it's going to reduce emissions quickly.

Research by thinktank Carbon Tracker suggests countries have already used about two-thirds of the fossil fuel allowance that will give a good chance of preventing more than two degrees of global temperature rise. That leaves a lot more coal, gas and oil in the ground than Carbon Tracker says can be burned.

 

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What the fossil fuel industry thinks of the 'carbon bubble'

  • 09 Jul 2014, 10:40
  • Mat Hope

Carbon Tracker

What does the fossil fuel industry make of the argument that it won't be allowed to burn its main product?

In 2011, campaign group Carbon Tracker warned that large portions of fossil fuel companies' assets are "unburnable" if the world intends to limit global warming to no more than two degrees.

If energy companies can't burn their reserves, they're overvalued, the group argues, in an analysis aimed squarely at the world's financial markets.

In the intervening years, the argument has gained some traction, including in key financial industry publications like the  Financial Times and  The Economist. But what do the fossil fuel companies themselves think?

While we weren't particularly optimistic that they'd want to talk about it, we asked oil, gas and coal companies for their take on the carbon bubble research. Many didn't respond. But some of the bigger companies did, acknowledging that while strong climate action could affect their activities, none of them considered it a threat to their business this century.

Responses

We contacted  76 oil, gas and coal companies, drawn from the main trade groups. Seven companies provided substantial responses. 58 companies didn't respond. We got no response from the coal industry.

Of the substantial responses, six came from major oil companies on the Fortune 500 list of the world's largest businesses, and followed a similar formula.

BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, and MOL all acknowledged climate change was real, and that climate policy posed a risk to their businesses - to an extent. They agreed that regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions should become more stringent over time, and probably will.

But none of the companies we asked saw climate action as a threat to their business in the coming decades - or if they did, they weren't prepared to share that assessment with us.

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The verdict on smart meter privacy, security and health concerns as UK smart meter rollout begins

  • 08 Jul 2014, 10:00
  • Ros Donald

Adapted from a blog originally posted in June 2012

Will the UK government's planned rollout of smart meters leave homes vulnerable to marketing companies desperate for us to overshare information about our most personal habits? Will an information grid linked to energy delivery systems be open to hackers, leaving whole districts vulnerable to disruption? Will smart meters really create a "spy in every home", as the Daily Mail has reported? We take a look at the risks.

Smart meters give people detailed information about how much energy they use and when. The theory is that this can help reduce bills, and level out peak-time stresses on the grid. As such, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is promoting smart meters as a tool for helping the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and plans to ensure one is installed in every home starting this week.

Privacy: will my smart meter be able to track what I do at home?

The short answer is yes - as long as you're using electricity. Energy meters show which appliances use the most electricity so that you can plan energy use effectively. Because of the different ways that appliances use electricity, such data could, for example, reveal whether you use medical devices or baby monitors, or even show the TV programme you're watching. And obviously, it can give information on when you're in or out, or track when you toilet light goes on. So, technically, it might know when you are on the loo.

The Mail reported that this information will be "will be collected every 30 minutes and beamed from a box in the home to the central databases." Some groups are worried about this. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which tracks privacy issues in Europe, produced a report last week warning that smart meter rollout will " enable massive collection of personal data which can track what members of a household do". EDPS is concerned that patterns and profiles could be mined for marketing and advertising, or price discrimination, and is asking the European Commission to consider legislating to protect consumers.

It does sound pretty alarming. However, the government appears to have taken some of these worries to heart already, outlining plans in April designed to ensure consumers have control over how much data they share with suppliers and third parties. 

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Factcheck: Has the US shale gas revolution saved more carbon than the entire solar and wind industry?

  • 07 Jul 2014, 14:55
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Dennis Dimick

The American shale gas revolution shaved more off global carbon emissions than all the world's windfarms and solar panels put together in 2012 according to Chris Faulkner, boss of US fracking firm Breitling Energy.

We think he's wrong. Even with some pretty heroic assumptions, he's only almost right. Let's see why.

The UK connection

Faulkner made his claim at a fringe meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He had been invited to speak by UK Conservative MP David Davis, a long-standing critic of climate change policies in general and wind energy in particular.

Faulker said:

"In 2012, the shift to gas has managed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 300 million tonnes. Compare this to the fact that all the wind turbines and solar panels in the world reduce carbon dioxide emissions, at a maximum, by 275 million tonnes. In other words, the US shale gas revolution has by itself reduced global emissions more than all the well-intentioned solar and wind in the world."

US coal emissions

To start with, let's look at US coal emissions. In 2012, US coal plants emitted 1,653 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That's 529 million tonnes below peak coal emissions, which were 2,182 million tonnes in 2005.

Let's generously assume all of that reduction is due to cheap shale gas displacing coal use. It takes about half as much carbon to generate a unit of electricity from gas as it does from coal. So the maximum carbon saving is half the coal emissions avoided. That's 265 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, in the same ballpark as the 300 million tonnes Faulkner claimed.

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Updated: The science of fracking and earthquakes

  • 04 Jul 2014, 11:55
  • Mat Hope

CC: G Thomasen

Should you worry that fracking will cause earthquakes? The short answer is: probably not.

But as more studies are conducted, researchers are developing their understanding of how the fracking process interacts with seismic activity.

Last year, a widely-cited study concluded that compared to other kinds of mining, fracking usually only causes minor tremors. But two papers in the past twelve months suggest the processes associated with fracking could increase the likelihood of small tremors.

We take a look at the evidence.

Fracking and earthquakes

Hydraulic fracturing - known as fracking - involves pumping a fluid made of water mixed with chemicals at high pressure into a drilled well. The fluid creates fractures in the rock, making it possible to extract oil or gas trapped there. So fracking essentially causes minor earthquakes by design, as cracking the rock causes tremors.

But research shows fracking very rarely causes earthquakes people can actually feel. The US Geological Survey found the number of small earthquakes in the USA increased significantly as the fracking industry was developed there. But the vast majority of those earthquakes were "micro" earthquakes registering less than 1 on the  moment magnitude scale - a modern version of the better known Richter scale.

Shale gas exploration is simply not in the "premier league" of serious earthquake causes, says Professor Richard Davies, director of Durham University's Energy Research Institute. Its study of 198 locations showed fracking caused much smaller tremors than other mining processes. Davies has said most fracking induced earthquakes release less energy than someone  jumping off a ladder onto the floor.

Wastewater earthquakes

The Durham study caught the media's attention, with a  swathe of headlines declaring fracking was not a significant cause of earthquakes. But it is worth pointing out that fracking has been linked to some earthquakes that have been felt, if only in three places: one each in Lancashire, the USA, and Canada.

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Explained: Fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production

  • 03 Jul 2014, 16:20
  • Mat Hope

CC: T Evanson

For half a decade, researchers have tried to answer the question of how much methane escapes from natural gas wells into the atmosphere. The recent emergence of fracking and shale gas has brought the issue to the fore. But studies continue to present varying results. 

Natural gas is mainly methane, some of which escapes during the drilling, extraction, and transportation process. Such outbreaks are known as fugitive emissions.

They're a problem because methane is a potent greenhouse gas - approximately  25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100 year timescale. The issue has been thrown into sharp relief because gas production has undergone a boom in recent years.

The discovery of large amounts of gas locked in shale rock means the US's production has  increased by about 25 per cent in recent years. That's helped  push energy prices down and  reduce the US's emissions. Many other countries are now also keen to explore shale gas's potential, citing the US as an example.

Gas emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal when it's burned, leading some to tout it as a  relatively "clean" fuel. But if fugitive emissions are too high, it makes gas a less attractive fuel for policymakers and industries interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And so the question of just how big fugitive emissions are is a pressing one.

Contested evidence

The data is contested. Some people - often advocates of decarbonisation - suggest the fuel is  nowhere near as "clean" as some companies declare. Others - often industry voices - accuse campaigners of  cherry-picking evidence.

There's certainly a wide range of estimates on the extent of the problem.

Estimates of gas production leakage rates are expressed as a percentage of total production. When we looked at this question in 2012, they ranged from 0.6 to four per cent.  

Over the past two years, the upper end of this range has increased. Some studies now suggest the amount of gas leaking from wells could be as high as nine per cent.

We've put some of the key estimates in the chart below:

Fugitive Emissions Bar Chart

Source: Various, see  this Google Doc for details. Graph by Carbon Brief. Note: ^ means value is for unconventional - i.e. shale - gas wells only, * means the value in the graph is the mid-estimate or mean of a range where a 'best estimate' is not given.

So why is there such a range of results?

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Record renewable energy consumption dampens impact of cold weather on UK’s annual emissions

  • 02 Jul 2014, 11:10
  • Mat Hope

CC: Slbs

The UK's energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions both rose in 2012, according to  new figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The statistics show that record amounts of low carbon energy dampened the effect of increased consumption on emissions, but failed to cancel out the impact of a cold winter.

Data

Households and businesses consumed 1.2 per cent more energy in 2012 than in 2011, bucking a general trend for declining consumption since 2005 (as the chart below shows). Temperatures one degree celsius lower than a year before were largely responsible for the increase, the ONS says.

ONS Energy Consumption

More fossil fuels were burned to meet the demand, the statistics show. The dashed blue line on the chart below shows the amount energy generated from fossil fuels such as coal and gas. Note how it pretty much mirrors the line on the chart above.

ONS Energy Consumption By Source

Burning coal and gas for power or heat releases lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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Scotland doesn’t have much shale gas, new estimates indicate

  • 30 Jun 2014, 14:31
  • Mat Hope

CC: J Macdonald

Scotland may have some hard to reach shale oil, but not much shale gas, according to new estimates.

A new  study by the British Geological Survey (BGS) released today suggests southern Scotland's Midland Valley may only have a fraction of the shale gas resources thought to be in northern England. The region between Glasgow and Edinburgh may have shale oil resources to rival those supposedly in England's south, however.

The report warns that it is "not yet possible" to ultimately know how much oil and gas Scotland's shale may produce.

How much is there?

BGS used mapping tools and data from existing oil and gas wells to predict the size of the resources. It gives three estimates of how much oil and gas there may be based on the model's results: low, central, and high.

BGS estimates there could be in the range of 49 to 135 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas locked in shale rock in Scotland's Midland Valley. It's central estimate is around 80 tcf - about six per cent of the resource thought to be in Lancashire's Bowland shale. The UK uses about three tcf of gas each year.

BGS Shale Gas Ranges

Source: Data from the British Geological Survey, graphs by Carbon Brief

While the survey finds there probably isn't much shale gas in Scotland, BGS estimates there could be as much as 11.2 billion barrels oil trapped in the same rock - about 30 per cent more than it recently estimated was in the  Weald Basin in the south of England.The UK uses 535 million barrels of oil each year. It has 3 billion barrels of oil that are currently known to be recoverable.

BGS Shale Oil Ranges

Source: Data from the British Geological Survey, graphs by Carbon Brief

BGS doesn't offer an estimate of how much oil or gas could eventually be extracted from the rock. Its estimates refer to the oil and gas "in-place" in the shale - the total amount that may be underground. That's  different from a 'reserve' estimate, which tells you how much you might eventually get out of the ground, and will be lower.

BGS emphasises that "some or all of [Midland Valley's oil and gas] might never be produced" in a press release accompanying today's report. That's partly because the region's geology could make it difficult for companies to drill exploratory wells. BGS says the Midland Valley shale rock has "thinner shale packages mixed in with volcanic rocks, faults and abandoned deep coal mine working which make it more complex and are likely to limit where wells can be drilled".

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Why has the government been criticised for paying ‘too much’ for low carbon energy?

  • 27 Jun 2014, 13:23
  • Mat Hope & Simon Evans

CC: Policy Exchange

The government is paying over the odds for eight low carbon energy projects, according to spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO). It says the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has awarded unnecessarily generous subsidies in its haste to confirm the plans.

The NAO's  report led to a  spate of headlines claiming renewable energy projects were receiving  "too much" funding from the government. So what's going on?

Early contracts

The government is introducing a new subsidy scheme for low carbon energy starting in April 2015, known as contracts for difference (CfDs). DECC decided to award early contracts to some projects to ensure there wasn't a gap in investment during the transition between the old scheme and the start of the CfDs. It's the early contracts that the NAO's criticises.

In May 2014, the government signed early contracts for five new windfarms, one biomass plant and to convert part of Drax coal-fired power station to biomass. The projects could provide 4.5 gigawatts of capacity when completed, helping the UK hit its target to get  15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources.

But the way DECC handed out these contracts "may have  increased costs to consumers", the NAO says. Its main criticism is that the government awarded the contracts - worth up to £16.6 billion - without any competition.

The CfD scheme means the government agrees a guaranteed price for electricity with power companies, known as the strike price. If the wholesale price of electricity falls below the strike price, the government tops it up, with the cost passed on to consumers. If wholesale prices are above the strike price, companies pay back the difference.

The government will hand out some of the contracts at a  fixed strike price on a first come first served basis. But companies may be forced to bid for contracts later if the scheme is oversubscribed. This could drive down the strike price.

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