Thursday, 1 September 2011

Why Government Energy Policy doesn’t work

I have believed for some time that an effective line of climate campaigning is to show up damning weaknesses in the Government’s long term energy plans.

In July last year, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) finally came up with their “Pathways to 2050” analysis.  This supposedly proved that we have a range of different options for achieving both 80% emissions reductions and 2.5% p.a. economic growth up to 2050. So the Government now feels comfortable that it is looking after our long term future.

My case that the plans are reckless is essentially this. (Note I only consider electricity generation because this will become our major energy source). DECC aimed for two specific targets – for emissions and growth, as above. There is no safety factor applied and the emissions target is not prioritised over the growth one, despite being the absolute minimum needed to contribute to a good chance of avoiding climate catastrophe. The 2050 finish date is clearly designed to give the longest time period we can realistically plan for. But it has resulted in plans that virtually ignore the need for an industrialised society to continue indefinitely beyond 2050. Most of the alternative “pathways” involve both using up a considerable proportion of available uranium for nuclear power plus secure cavities for storing the carbon dioxide captured in CCS generation. The other major resource is of course renewables. These might not be sufficiently developed to be able to make up for reduced nuclear and CCS by 2050.  The Government rely far too much on advancing technology to solve these issues.

Most climate campaigners support much more rapid development of renewable energy. I do at this stage but also think we fail to look critically enough at renewable energy projections. The landscape impacts of renewable energy infrastructure in the future will be far greater than what we have now. Grid balancing will also become very difficult to achieve. Very recently there have been calls to ditch renewable targets and use more gas and nuclear, on cost grounds. One option is for nuclear power stations to use fuel that is reprocessed at Sellafield. This is more sustainable than reliance on mined uranium but introduces all manner of risks from waste handling and nuclear proliferation.

My conclusion is that we need to move towards low-impact living to reduce emissions. I would suggest this aim is backed up by cold, hard and objective analysis of our energy options.

Chris Broome