Cutting emissions without onshore wind: it may be possible, but it would cost us

  • 24 Apr 2014, 16:00
  • Robin Webster

There's "no requirement" for the UK to put up any more onshore wind turbines after 2020, according to energy minister  Michael Fallon. But evidence from a government advisor suggests capping onshore windfarms will make it a lot more difficult and expensive to hit our climate targets.

The next government will scrap subsidies for onshore wind from 2020 if the Conservatives win the election, the party confirmed today. This would essentially place a freeze on new wind turbines from the end of this decade. 

But Tories say they're not rowing back from commitments to cut carbon emissions. The country's got enough onshore wind in the pipeline to meet our renewable energy commitments, and "there's no requirement for any more," Fallon told the BBC this morning, adding that other technologies can be used to cut emissions. 

The idea that the UK can stop expanding onshore wind farms and cost-effectively keep up with plans to cut carbon emissions is at odds with evidence from experts including the government advisor the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), however. 

Read more

Carbon Briefing: how energy demand could drink up global water resources

  • 23 Apr 2014, 13:30
  • Robin Webster

Increasing energy demand is set to put pressure on the world's water resources over the coming decades, according to a number of new expert studies. Even if the world shifts away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner power supplies, growing demand could help put water supplies under severe strain by the middle of the century.  

From cooling down power plants and extracting, transporting and processing fuels to growing crops used as biofuels, energy production relies on water. Altogether, the sector accounts for 15 per cent of water withdrawals around the world, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Only agriculture is more water-hungry.

Yet demand is going up - just as growing populations and climate change put the world water supplies under  even more pressure. Working out where water supplies for energy will come from in future is one of the "great challenges of our generation," the  World Resources Institute says.

Changing threats to water supplies 

Water resources are already stretched. Groundwater extraction has  tripled in the last 50 years in response to rising demand. Some underwater stores are now reaching "critically low levels", according to the latest edition of the  UN World Water Development Report, released in March.

Read more

Study: “plumes” of methane released into the atmosphere by a few super-emitting shale gas wells

  • 22 Apr 2014, 13:30
  • Robin Webster

Methane emissions from some shale gas wells could be up to a thousand times higher than official estimates - meaning they have a warming effect orders of magnitude higher than previously thought. But the finding only refers to a few 'super-emitter' sites, a tiny proportion of the total number of drilling locations, accordong to a recent study. 

The government argues that the UK could burn gas  instead of coal as a way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the energy system. That includes domestically produced shale gas

But some academics argue that gas leaks during the process of extracting shale gas from rock - known as fracking - could make the fuel far more climate-polluting than its supporters claim. 

The evidence is contested, and other researchers disagree. But a new  study from researchers at a number of American universities appears to support the idea that 'fugitive' or unplanned emissions from shale gas wells could be substantial. The study identifies a small number of sites where drilling for shale gas has released large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. 


Read more

Degrees of change: the IPCC’s projections for future temperature rise

  • 15 Apr 2014, 12:00
  • Robin Webster

Many governments are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But unless policymakers raise their ambition significantly, temperatures are likely to rise beyond safe levels. We examine the pathways that could take us towards a two degrees temperature rise by the end of the century - or considerably higher. 

On Sunday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the last in a series of three reports, which together assess the physical evidence that climate change is happening, the  expected impacts over the course of this century and what would need to happen to curb the rise in greenhouse gases.

Embedded in the reports are the scientists' predictions for how high temperatures are likely to rise this century - and what that's likely to mean for ecosystems and societies around the world. 

Comparing scenarios 

The IPCC bases its projections for future temperature rise on two different techniques. 

First, the IPCC has created its own storylines, or scenarios, describing how high temperatures are likely to rise in the future and what that might mean. The scenarios vary according to different predictions for how societies develop and how much effort we make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the course of this century.

Read more

Excitement over ‘clean’ underground coal gasification masks technical reality

  • 15 Apr 2014, 10:50
  • Mat Hope

Credit: US Department of Energy

Coal is cheap, abundant, and responsible for about 40 per cent of the world's electricity generation. That's a problem, because it also has some of the highest greenhouse gas emissions of any energy source. It's no wonder that a technology that could allow the world to continue burning coal - but cleanly - is being met with some excitement, then.

Writing in the  Telegraph at the end of last year, Algy Cluff, chief executive of energy company Cluff Natural Resources, said 'underground coal gasification' could "provide a vital energy solution and produce abundant and cheap gas for generations". The technology briefly put its head above the parapet again today, as the  BBC asked whether it be "the clean energy of the future".

The prospect has certainly piqued the government's interest, with energy minister Michael Fallon  establishing a working group to explore its feasibility.

But is it too good to be true? We explore underground coal gasification's prospects and try to separate the theory from the reality.

What is underground coal gasification?

Underground coal gasification (UCG) involves drilling down into coal - normally deep underground - then igniting it. The resulting gas then runs up another borehole and is collected on the surface, as the diagram below shows:


underground coal gasification diagram

Once the gas is collected, companies can use it to run power stations, or convert it into transport fuel. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology can be added, reducing the process' emissions, and making it relatively 'clean'.

As such, the government now sees the "exciting potential" of UCG as means to generate abundant, domestically-sourced, ostensibly fairly low carbon power in the UK, the Telegraph  reported.

So, what are UCG's prospects in the UK?

Read more

Not just another climate report: main messages from the UN report on tackling emissions

  • 13 Apr 2014, 14:15
  • Robin Webster

If we're going to curb the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the world's governments need to co-operate - and they're running out of time to do it. That's one of the top-line messages from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s latest mega-report into current and future greenhouse gas emissions. 

Today's report is the last in a series of three from the IPCC. The first two summarised the physical evidence base for climate change and its potential  impacts on ecosystems and human societies. Now the organisation is looking at what's likely to happen to greenhouse gas emissions over the course of this century - and what possibilities there are for reversing the upwards trend. 

The full report runs to thousands of pages, providing an overview of all the research in the area. In order to complete it, the scientists assessed more than 1200 scenarios for how the future might unfold from different studies. The report's  summary is slightly more digestible, at just 33 pages. Here's our run-down of its key points. 

Emissions rising

Between 2000 and 2010, greenhouse gas emissions grew at 2.2 per cent a year -  a faster rate of increase than over the previous three decades. Human-caused emissions were "the highest in human history" in the first decade of this century, the IPCC says. 

Read more

Stormy weather leads to record levels of renewable electricity

  • 27 Mar 2014, 11:30
  • Mat Hope

Vincent van Zeijst

Stormy weather pushed the UK's renewable electricity generation to to record levels at the end of 2013, according to official statistics. However, fossil fuels still made up the largest proportion of the UK's energy mix.

Renewables generated almost 18 per cent of the UK's electricity in the last three months of 2013, with high wind speeds ramping up wind generation.

The figure comes from Department of Energy and Climate Change's monthly energy statistics, which track energy production and consumption between November 2013  and January this year.

Electricity mix by fuel

Electricity generation fell by 3.4 per cent on a year before, the statistics show.

Renewables' share of the overall mix increased to around 18 per cent. Meanwhile the proportion of fossil fuels used to generate electricity decreased slightly, to 61 per cent. Coal power continued to have the highest share: to 36 per cent.

UK electricity mix nov to jan14


Read more

Carbon briefing: changing views on biofuels reflected in forthcoming climate report

  • 26 Mar 2014, 11:15
  • Robin Webster

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s new report, due to be launched next week, is likely to give a new and updated perspective on biofuels - reflecting a flood of research on their impact on natural systems in past years. 

The UN-created body launched its last major report back in 2007. At that time, the idea of using plant based crops as a replacement for fossil fuels was largely viewed as an effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector. 

But soon afterstudies began emerging in the scientific literature that challenged this idea. They suggested biofuels could damage the environment, drive up  food prices, or even increase  greenhouse gas emissions

Biofuels in the the IPCC's Fourth Assessment

Back in 2007, the IPCC  identified transport biofuels as a "key mitigation strategy". They "might" play an important role in addressing greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector, it said. 

Read more

Budget 2014: Five key climate and energy numbers

  • 20 Mar 2014, 13:50
  • Mat Hope

Chancellor George Osborne delivered his fifth budget yesterday. It seems the chancellor has been taking notes from his party leader, with a number of measures squarely aimed at  cutting the "green crap".

We've picked out the five most important energy and climate change numbers.

Budget 2014, CPF

Osborne announced the UK's top-up carbon tax - the  carbon price floor - will be frozen after 2016. The government only introduced the measure last year, and the price was intended to rise every 12 months - hitting £30 by 2020. That's now not going to happen, and the chancellor said the government would review the policy altogether in 2020.

Environmental campaigners and commentators said yesterday's decision gave a lifeline to the UK's coal plants as it makes it cheaper for them to pollute.

Budget 2014 climate and energy infographic

Read more

Heatproofing London: Climate change raises city heat death risk, but adaptation can cut the impact

  • 20 Mar 2014, 12:30
  • Ros Donald

Heatwaves have an amplified impact in cities, causing disproportionate discomfort, health risks and mortality rates - an effect that's expected to worsen as temperatures rise, according to new research. But the scientists also find taking measures to adapt cities to higher temperatures can reduce heat-related deaths by between 32 and 69 per cent.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s projections of future climate change suggest it's likely heatwaves may become longer and/or more frequent by the end of the century. That's expected to make baking city summers even more unbearable.

Relatively little research has been done to find out how effective attempts to adapt to hotter temperatures will be.

In the new study, researchers from a group of UK universities set out to give a risk assessment of how higher temperatures will affect city-dwellers - examining projections of urban temperatures into the future, as well as predictions of how populations will change.

Read more