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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

09.11.2012 | 4:00pm
ScienceKeeping the Lights On: a look at UKIP’s energy policy evidence base
SCIENCE | November 9. 2012. 16:00
Keeping the Lights On: a look at UKIP’s energy policy evidence base

Unproven and implausible” climate science and an energy policy based on coal, gas and nuclear: welcome to the UK Independence Party’s vision for UK energy, according to its new policy document. We check our pick of the report’s claims.

UKIP’s energy policy document, ‘ Keeping the Lights On: How UKIP would prevent the impending energy shortfall’, came out last month. Co-authored by UKIP MEP Roger Helmer, it threatens energy apocalypse at the hands of Brussels, climate scientists and, of course, wind power, unless the UK ditches them all in favour of UKIP’s plan – highlighted in Union Jack bullet points.

1. Climate science – back to the dark ages

First, climate science. According to UKIP:

“Professor Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia recognises that there has been no statistically significant warming for fifteen years…”

This is a misrepresentation of an interview Jones did with the BBC in 2010. Jones told the interviewer temperature rise from 1995 to 2010 was statistically insignificant, “but only just”. Whether a trend is statistically significant can vary depending on the time period over which it is measured – and a bit more data either side can change the outcome.

And as we have discussed before, scientists don’t draw general conclusions about global temperature trends based on short timeframes, as Jones himself  and the Met Office have said. The argument also ignores the well-established evidence base from different scientific disciplines showing that the world is warming.

Next, in our favourite comment, UKIP says:

“The slight warming in the last hundred years is entirely consistent with well- established, long-term natural climate cycles – the Roman Optimum, the Dark Ages, the Mediæval Warm Period, the Little Ice Age. And now we seem to be moving into a new, natural 21st century optimum.”

Many climate skeptics cite solar activity or other natural climate variation to explain the warming trend. Scientists at bodies such as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have investigated all of these natural forcings, and have ruled them out as the dominant cause of warming over the last few decades. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), these have been ruled out as the dominant cause of warming over the last few decades. This FAQ page gives a good explanation.

And no – the Dark Ages is not a climatic period.  The term – now rarely used by historians – refers to a period in the Middle Ages ushered in by the fall of the western Roman empire.

2. Renewables – no jobs, or not enough studies?

In the next section, UKIP takes issue with the idea that the renewable energy industry could create jobs. It cites two studies – both of which former presidential candidate Mitt Romney also used in his energy strategy. First, a “recent report” by small and hitherto little-known Fife-based consultancy Verso Economics called ‘Worth the Candle?’. According to UKIP, the study, which was launched last February:

“demonstrates that for every job created in the renewable sector, four jobs are destroyed elsewhere in the economy […]  by driving up energy costs, reducing competitiveness and deterring investment.”

The renewables industry has countered that Verso significantly underestimated the number of people working in the renewables sector. And according to the BBC, a spokesman for the Scottish government said in making its calculation, Verso focused only on public subsidies to renewables and did not consider any private investment in the sector.
The second report, from King Juan Carlos University, has also come in for criticism. The Spanish government argues it is “based on a simplistic, reductionist and short-term view of the problem”. Meanwhile, the US Department of Energy says the authors’ premise “is not supported by their work”. And even the Wall Street Journal, which cited the Verso report in an article criticising Europe’s renewables strategy, says the Spanish report’s premise based on opportunity cost – that the money Spain’s government spends on green jobs cannot be spent by private parties – is flawed as Spain’s renewable subsidies come from existing tax revenues.

3. Energy bills

UKIP also claims UK and EU climate and energy policies are driving up consumer bills. It says:                        

“Government Feed-In-Tariffs (FITs) […] have encouraged households to become small-scale electricity producers with solar PV panels on south-facing roofs connected to feed into the grid […] But the costs come back to other consumers, with Ofgem reckoning the average householder to be subsidising the favoured few by £70 per year.”                 

In fact, Ofgem’s estimate for 2012 the cost of the FITS policy is less than £1 per year on the average household electricity bill.

4. UKIP’s alternative

So, what’s UKIP’s alternative? It says it will ignore the “black propaganda from the green lobby, which seems to be opposed to just about every viable energy technology”, and promote an energy mix of coal, gas and nuclear technology.

UKIP’s arguments in favour of reinvigorating the UK’s coal industry are particularly noteworthy. First, while it “strongly supports a clean environment and clean air” it says it’s not concerned about emissions from burning coal:            

“We do not…regard CO2 as a pollutant. It is a natural trace gas in the atmosphere which is essential to plant growth and life on earth. Higher CO2 levels increase agricultural crop yields and  ‘green’ the planet. Man- made CO2 emissions amount to only around 3% of the natural carbon cycle.”

Some studies show that it is possible to increase the growth of some plants with extra carbon dioxide, under controlled conditions inside greenhouses. But when scientists have experimented with real outdoor conditions, the outcome is less promising, with average yields around 50 per cent lower than the greenhouse experiments. Many factors affect plant growth, like temperature, water and nutrient availability, pests and diseases – all of which may be affected by climate change, which means the claim that carbon dioxide will enhance growth is a huge oversimplification.

As to the three per cent claim, given the volume carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, an extra three per cent is still a considerable increase in the total abundance. Adding more greenhouse gases and aerosols alter the Earth’s energy balance, so even a relatively small change will make a big difference to the global climate. The IPCC’s AR4 report says:

“Changing the atmospheric abundance or properties of these gases and particles can lead to a warming or cooling of the climate system.”

And since the Industrial Revolution, human activity has altered that balance in favour of warming.

UKIP adds:                       

“…the UK still has substantial coal reserves – enough for 200 years, on some estimates.”

Enough to revive UK coal mining, then? Not according to UK Coal: it says only about 20 years’ worth of coal remain from known reserves in the UK.

Keeping the lights on

These highlights are just a few of the claims UKIP makes about the climate and energy. But while UKIP certainly provides a lot of references, we’re not sure this document counts as evidence-based policy.

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