Former environment secretary Owen Paterson tonight delivered a lecture to climate skeptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation. In his speech, he called on the government to suspend the UK’s legally binding obligation to cut emissions and abandon its pursuit of renewable energy in favour of submarine-style nuclear power.
Paterson suggests forecasts of climate change’s impacts have been “consistently and widely exaggerated”, adding that the atmosphere has failed “to warm at all over the past 18 years”.
This is incorrect. The atmosphere has warmed by about 0.05 degrees since the end of the 1990s. This is slower than in previous decades, but when what’s happening to the oceans is also considered, scientists are clear that the planet as a whole is warming.
Scientists expect air temperatures to rise quickly again when natural cycles that are currently pushing heat into the deep ocean reverse. This kind of natural fluctuation has happened many times in earth’s history – and when you take the ups and downs out, the long term trend is one of warming since industrialisation.
Paterson doesn’t dispute that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but he says there is “considerable uncertainty” over how much warming we’ll see.
Scientists haven’t pinned down exactly how much temperatures rise per doubling of carbon dioxide – known as the climate sensitivity. But importantly, if we continue emitting greenhouse gases as fast as we are, we’ll see serious warming this century wherever climate sensitivity sits within the range scientists have identified.
The lights going out
Cutting emissions and decarbonising the energy sector means “the lights would eventually go out”.
While the idea of the lights going out is an attractive shorthand for journalists and commentators, it isn’t seriously expected to become reality.
However, the government has long recognised the need for significant investment to replace the UK’s aging energy infrastructure. Many of the UK’s power stations are very old and are due to reach the end of their natural life over the coming decades. There are particular concerns about generating capacity over the next few winters.
That’s why the government is planning to pay firms to reduce demand at peak times, and is creating a capacity market. This will pay power companies money to ensure there is always enough capacity to cover peak demand, so that the lights will always stay on, even if we have to pay to make sure.
The UK going it alone
“We are the only country to have legally bound ourselves to the 2050 targets – and certainly the only one to bind ourselves to a doomed policy.”
EU leaders have endorsed emissions cuts of 80-95 per cent for 2050 too. This isn’t legally binding – the EU has legal targets for 2020 and, soon, for 2030 – but several other EU countries have put similar 2050 targets into law. For example, Finland and Denmark adopted legally binding emissions targets earlier this year. Germany has a legal target to cut emissions by 40 per cent in 2020.
The US and China do not have equivalent legal emissions targets. But California, for instance, also has a binding 80 per cent by 2050 goal, and both nations are introducing other measures aiming to limit coal-fired power generation and reduce emissions.
Encourages “an acceleration of shale gas exploitation”.
Although the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is enthusiastic about shale gas development, their chief scientist says shale realistically won’t provide meaningful supplies for at least a decade.
Recommends “an innovative approach with small nuclear reactors”.
Small nuclear reactors have been developed to power submarines and some other large vessels like aircraft carriers. But it could be a long time before the UK has a fleet of small nuclear power stations.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change recently told a committee of MPs it could take five to seven years to get a trial project up and running. The Office for Nuclear Regulation told the same committee it could take up to six years just to approve the design of the reactors.
The power plants are also expensive. The US government recently spent $450 million to bring two demonstration plants online.
Calls for a “dynamic demand” programme. That “requires the fitting of certain domestic appliances, such as refrigerators, with low-cost sensors coupled to automated controls. These measure the frequency of the current supplied and switch off their appliances when the system load temporarily exceeds supply, causing the current frequency to drop.”
Such appliances have been in the pipeline for a while. But measures to make them reduce electricity consumption haven’t yet been implemented.
Much larger potential to manage demand exists in the business and industrial sector, and firms are keen to get involved if the price is right. The government already has plans to ask companies to power down their factories, warehouses or superstores when they don’t need electricity. Paterson backs these plans, saying “We have started this and we need to do much more”.
The Climate Change Act blocking alternative energy investment
The Climate Change Act implies “an all-or-nothing strategy which does not leave any openings for alternatives. It requires very specific technology, such as supposedly ‘zero carbon’ windfarms, and electric vehicles.”
One of Paterson’s main objections to the emissions reduction target in the Climate Change Act is that it obstructs his vision for the UK’s future energy mix.
But the emissions target itself doesn’t dictate specific energy policies. The EU has a separate 2020 target for renewable energy – but this is separate from the Climate Change Act or the UK’s 2050 target.
The Climate Change Act is ‘technology neutral’. It requires the government to cut the UK’s emissions, but doesn’t specifically say how this should be done.
The point of the target is to create a challenging environment, where companies are encouraged to innovate to find ways to help the UK decarbonise. But it doesn’t require the building of a single windfarm, nor prevent companies exploring for shale gas.
The current government is a big fan of this technology neutral approach, with energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey earlier this year calling for it to be mirrored across Europe.
The costs of decarbonisation
“Our current policy will cost £1,300 billion up to 2050.”
That’s more than the £1,100 billion it was initially reported Paterson’s would say the UK’s decarbonisation policies cost. Predicting the future of energy is notoriously difficult. As a result, some studies say renewables will be cheaper than fossil energy in future, while others disagree.
Paterson’s figure appears to be drawn from a 2012 study from energy consultants Mercados. It says the UK would have to spend a minimum of £780 billion to meet its power needs out to 2050, including the cost of replacing old plants as they close. To meet emissions reduction targets, the cost rises to £960 billion with cuts coming from nuclear power and as-yet-unproven carbon capture and storage fitted to gas-fired plant.
Meeting climate targets using existing renewable technologies too would be more expensive at £1,100 billion, the Mercados study found. So taking this at face value the extra cost of meeting carbon targets – according to this one study – could be up to £320 billion.
Cutting emissions will save governments money in the long run, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as they won’t have to pay as much to deal with the impacts of climate change.
Scrapping the Climate Change Act
“… the Climate Change Act should be effectively suspended and eventually repealed.”
Paterson says the energy and climate change secretary should invoke clause 2 of the Climate Change Act, which enables them to amend the 2050 target, with the immediate effect of suspending it.
But the secretary of state can only amend the target if there’s evidence of “significant changes” since it was set. The Act lists changes in the scientific evidence on climate change, or changes in the rate at which other countries are decarbonising, as potential justifications for altering the target.
But the government might have a tough time justifying its decision if it were to change the target. It is legally required to listen to the advice of its advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). If the CCC said there’s no reason to change the goal, and the government did so anyway, ministers could be taken to court.
The government recently decided to leave the target as it is after a regular review, following the CCC’s advice that there had been no significant changes in circumstance. And the overwhelming support for the Act when it was originally passes suggests the chances of it being sidelined seem distant.
You can hear the full audio recording of Paterson’s speech on Soundcloud.