IEA: ‘Radical change of course’ required on road to low carbon economy

  • 12 May 2014, 15:20
  • Mat Hope

Steve Daniels

We're all used to the idea of flicking a switch to turn on the lights. But as greenhouse gas emissions rise, policymakers are going to have to find ways to make the whole economy - from cars to cookers - run on electricity too, a new report suggests.

While electrifying the global economy won't be easy, the International Energy Agency (IEA) argues that it's necessary if countries are going to prevent the world warming by six degrees.

The good news is, policymakers already have much of the necessary technology at their fingertips - they just need to learn how to harness its potential, the organisation says. Here's an in-depth look at the IEA's Harnessing Electricity's Potential report.

Saving emissions

Much of the world's electricity currently comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas, and demand for electricity is rising. If governments are going to limit global warming to two degrees (the internationally agreed goal), they'll have to find a less polluting way to generate electricity, the IEA says.

That would require a "massive reversal of recent trends", the IEA's report says. For the past 40 years, the carbon intensity of the energy system - the emissions associated with a unit of energy generated - has held steady. That's largely because the world has continued to rely on fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal to generate electricity.

To hit the two degree target, the IEA's analysis suggests the carbon intensity of the energy system must decrease by 90 per cent by 2050. That means rolling out much more low carbon electricity from sources such as nuclear, wind, solar, and hydropower.

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Lords' clean and green shale gas comes with caveats

  • 08 May 2014, 16:40
  • Simon Evans

Number 10

If you want a cheap, low-carbon power supply then shale gas is the answer according to Lord MacGregor, chairman of the House of Lords economic affairs committee. His committee has published a report saying the UK should get fracking - right away.

But MacGregor's assertion that domestic shale gas is clean and green depends on the way fracking is carried out in the UK, on what the gas replaces and on how long we continue to use it for.

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Does the UK already have enough green energy?

  • 08 May 2014, 10:00
  • Simon Evans

Renewable electricity developers are doing themselves out of a job. According to anti-wind group the Renewable Energy Foundation, they should finish what they're working on and pack up, because we don't need any more of their power. 

Its latest  report says there are already  enough windfarms, solar panels and wood-fired power plants built, under construction or given consent to meet our renewable energy targets. That means there are a thousand more planning applications causing  needless anxiety for homeowners when they could be scrapped. 

Conservative energy minister Michael Fallon has been leading his party's  charge against onshore wind turbines and is likely to welcome these conclusions. There are only two problems with the REF report. It makes impossibly optimistic assumptions about renewable build rates. And it assumes the UK can start breaking its own laws after 2020. 

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High renewables ambition, but fossil fuels still dominate: UK and Germany electricity systems compared

  • 01 May 2014, 09:00
  • Robin Webster

Germany generated twice as much wind power and fifteen times as much solar power as the UK last year, according to figures from a research institute.

In different ways, these two European countries are both seen as leaders in their commitment to tackling climate change. The UK's ground-breaking Climate Change Act requires the country to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by the middle of the century, against their levels in 1990. 

Germany's  Energiewende plan makes the same promise - and adds on a pledge to source half of the country's power from renewable sources by 2050. 

The plans will require significant changes to the UK and German power systems - changing them from relying on electricity generated from fossil fuels, to systems dominated by renewables. Although in both countries,  support for renewable power is  high, a combination of politics and cost means the changes are controversial. And in both Germany and the UK, government cuts could threaten ambitious plans to switch to a less polluting power system.

Comparing power systems

The UK has about  70 per cent of Germany's land area, but generates only about half the electricity. In 2013, it produced  316 Terawatt (Twh) hours of electricity. Germany generated  596Twh - almost twice as much, according to figures from the Fraunhofer solar research institute.  


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Failure to tackle emissions from power sector could undermine environmental case for HS2

  • 28 Apr 2014, 12:30
  • Robin Webster

The environmental argument for the HS2 high speed rail link could be weakened if we keep generating electricity from fossil fuels, according to official documents. Government claims about the carbon benefits of the scheme rest on the assumption that emissions from the power sector dramatically reduce over the next fifteen years - and that might not happen. 

MPs are due to vote today on the proposed high-speed rail link to the north of England - the culmination of a political  battle to persuade reluctant MPs to support the scheme. More than 30 Tories are likely to rebel, abstaining or voting against the scheme, the BBC reports

MPs are  doubtful about the economic benefits of the scheme, and wary about the  disruption it may cause. The project's environmental benefits are also worth scrutinising, however. 

The government claims HS2 will help the country reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But coalition  battles over energy policy, and George Osborne's plans to bump up the amount of power sourced from gas, mean emissions from HS2 may be higher than it suggests. 

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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. 

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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.

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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. 


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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.

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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?

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