By Olly Watts and Melanie Coath, Senior Policy Officers.
There was a curious mix of optimism and the urgency to do more, at the launch of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) Report to Parliament on reducing emissions and preparing for climate change.
It was good to hear members of the Committee talk positively about the current situation. Minister Claire Perry was upbeat and strong: the world does still look to the UK for leadership on climate action, and we have strong grassroots support for that. Apparently we are the third best country for climate action. We must maintain this role and lead by example.
Lord Deben too was clear and forthright. The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have come down markedly since 1990, whilst our economy has grown. We have legally binding carbon reduction targets, to which Parliament must provide the policy and road map to achieve. He urged a focussing on positives, to encourage further action. So, whilst green energy is adding to the cost of energy, alongside this, climate driven energy efficiency measures are cutting demand by a much greater extent, resulting in more than 10% net cost benefit of taking climate change action. And let’s not forgot the costs of fossil energy that the consumer may not pay in energy bills, but which racks up elsewhere - the costs of climate change itself.
The fruits of early investment in a low carbon economy are being reaped. Yet the Minister explained that we are at a tipping point, and need to greatly increase action to achieve her ambition to make UK the leading place in the world for green business.
The CCC is clear that we are not on track to meet our next greenhouse gas reduction targets. We learned that the Government’s long overdue Clean Growth Plan will be published in September, and welcome news that the Minister will spend the intervening period strengthening it. We’ve made it clear what we – a group of development and environment NGOs - hope to see in the Plan, with our own RSPB 2050 Energy Vision setting out how we can meet our targets in harmony with nature.
There was much talk of the value and importance of natural capital – our wildlife and natural environment and, hearteningly, clear recognition that we must address the role and sustainability of our soils for both mitigation and adaptation.
The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment sets the direction for our four countries to develop National Adaptation Programmes (NAP) over the next year. It’s salutary how the natural environment underpins the six major risks, which include impacts across species and habitats, terrestrial and marine. So the development of the country NAPs must place the environment centre stage: to address the impacts, with measureable targets, and so that nature based solutions play their part in our wider, societal needs to adapt to climate change, for water management, health, urban design and more.
Crucially, the CCC articulated a broad and vital message on policy: we have a major policy shortfall looming. Many current policies extend to 2020 and not beyond – such as Biodiversity 2020, the plan to safeguard nature in England, and the Levy Control Framework, which determines funding for renewables. The meeting was peppered with references where clear, climate smart policy is needed: to encourage electric vehicles and improve car and van efficiency; to develop carbon capture and storage. For low carbon heating, and standards for homes to reduce overheating, and also energy efficiency – and we shouldn’t be building anything that will need retrofitting for climate in the future. We have five million properties at high flood risk. And, to leave nature in a better condition, the 25 year plans for nature and farming, and the successor to the Common Agricultural Policy, must recognise and embed climate change.
So, a clear requirement: whilst leaving the EU will undoubtedly dominate, this Parliamentary term must not let the vital policy needs for climate change fall by the wayside. We are at a tipping point, and pursuing the necessary action needs clear Government direction with strong support. It’s a great time to be working on climate policy!
In April this year, we saw the groundbreaking headlines ‘British power generation achieves first ever coal-free day’. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the UK power network didn’t need any coal. This milestone is part of the inevitable trajectory towards coal coming off the UK power grid entirely in the next few years. Coal is one of the dirtiest forms of energy production used in the UK in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it releases. We don’t see a future for coal as part of the UK’s energy system because removing it is one of the easiest ways to achieve the urgent emissions reductions required in the UK and beyond.
Coal power has been declining substantially for the last few years, and in April this year coal use to generate electricity was 45% lower than it was in April 2012. However Banks Group have applied for permission to open a new opencast coal mine in Druridge Bay, Northumberland, with current plans being for most of the coal mined to go to UK power stations.
In recent weeks there has been a public inquiry into this application due to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid MP, deciding to ‘call-in’ the application. This means he has taken the decision into his own hands. In his ‘call-in’ letter, the Secretary of State cited climate change concerns as part of his reasoning. As far as we are aware, this is the first ever time that climate change concerns had been part of a call-in decision.
The RSPB has been involved in the Inquiry due to our objection to the proposed new mine, and we have submitted evidence highlighting how a new opencast coal mine would be incompatible with the UK’s climate change commitments, and inconsistent with Government plans to phase out coal power by 2025 at the latest.
Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to wildlife, and the significant harm that could be caused to wildlife by emissions often cannot be avoided, mitigated nor compensated for.
We will be following the progress of the inquiry and any future decision with great interest, and we’ll keep you updated.
The winds of change have certainly blown hard this week, hard enough in fact that on Wednesday they helped to set a new record for renewable energy. National Grid was able to report that wind, nuclear and solar power combined had produced more electricity than fossil fuels combined, for the first ever time.
This was a landmark moment, and is perhaps the mirror image of other recent headlines marking the rapid demise of coal power in this country. For example, in April the UK produced power without any coal whatsoever for the first ever time. The very exciting decline in our reliance on coal, thanks the growing availability of renewables, means that the Government commitment to phase out coal power represents common sense at a time when our power system is ready to move beyond it anyway. In fact, analysis by the Committee on Climate Change suggests that if the UK were to prioritise the ‘dispatch’ of renewable energy ahead of others then the UK might be able to cope without coal now, rather than the phase out date they have committed to of 2025.
Even more renewables, but in harmony with nature
If the UK is to continue to celebrate such milestones, there needs to be a secure investment environment for the renewables industry. This relies on a clear plan for the UK’s efforts to cut its emissions, and at the moment we are still awaiting the long-delayed Clean Growth Plan which will set out how we will meet our climate targets to 2032. It also relies on clear funding mechanisms for renewable energy. For more mature technologies this could even help some of them reach a point in the near future where they could be built and operated without subsidy. We hope that announcements in the Autumn Budget will provide greater investment certainty for a high renewables future.
At the same time the Government’s enthusiasm for fracking is not taking our energy system in the direction we need. The Conservative manifesto promised, for example, that non-fracking drilling could be eligible for ‘permitted development’. Non-fracking drilling could in fact include fracking as long as it doesn’t use more than a certain amount of water. Such sweeteners for fossil fuel companies are a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who understand the urgent need to transition to a net zero carbon energy system.
Of course, renewable energy installations are not without their risks either, and we hope that future deployment will not come at the expense of the natural environment. Our Energy Vision reports last year showed that it is possible to deliver renewable energy in harmony with nature, but only by applying an innovative strategic spatial mapping technique to avoid high risk areas. We hope that new technologies such as floating offshore wind might be able to make a significant contribution to delivering future renewable energy capacity. Floating wind could open up areas of the sea much further offshore which may have lower risk to seabirds, but first we need much better data on marine wildlife and seabirds in order to fully understand the risks.
Burning trees for electricity is a hollow victory
Whenever these renewable energy records are broken, there’s an elephant in the room. The news this week was no different: with hydropower and bioenergy included, the UK got just over half of its electricity from renewables. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of this bioenergy comes from the combustion of wood for electricity, in particular at Drax, the UK’s largest power plant. Drax has made a name out of its ‘green’ transition of half of its boilers from coal to biomass in recent years. This involves the burning of millions of tonnes of wood pellets per year that are shipped from the US, where forests are being cut down for this purpose. As research by the RSPB and others has shown, burning trees to make electricity harms wildlife and forests, and can also be terrible for the climate.
New research (building on years of existing scientific evidence) published in recent months by research institute Chatham House, and then by the European Academies Science Advisory Council, further debunks the notion that bioenergy from wood is ‘carbon neutral’ (as claimed by some) and in fact concludes that in the short and medium term using forests in this way to produce energy could in fact be causing emissions to increase compared to the fossil fuels that are replaced.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that bioenergy is a more costly renewable than wind or solar power, even once the costs of balancing the system (due to the intermittent nature of renewable) have been taken into account.
If we want to continue celebrating renewable energy milestones then it’s important that we (particularly National Grid, the Government and the media) recognise the true climate impacts of burning trees for electricity, rather than lauding hollow victories. But, that’s not to take away from the importance of reflecting on and celebrating the significant shift in the UK’s power system that is already underway, symbolised by the inevitable decline of coal and the growing main role played by renewable energy sources.