THE government’s announcement of revised plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions today, Powering up Britain, needs to be judged against the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report, issued on Monday March 20, states: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
Global warming has been driven by the use of fossil fuels, which has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, in the atmosphere. The report calls for massive cuts in the use of such fuels, and instead the application of clean energy and technology.
Governments had previously agreed to act to avoid the average global temperature rising by more than 1.5C. But the world has already warmed by 1.1C and the IPCC expects that it is likely to pass the 1.5C target in the 2030s unless urgent action is taken.
The likely consequences, if the target is passed, include further rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, floods, loss of species and habitats, increased desertification in hotter regions and mass migration of people as living conditions and agriculture become impossible.
Essentially the latest plans from the British government are business as usual — or at least as much as possible. There is no fresh funding, and the 60 points include many initiatives that have already been announced.
The government’s ongoing commitment to fossil fuels has already been underscored by the new licensing round for North Sea oil and gas development, with tax breaks for energy companies to invest there under the windfall tax. So, it is no surprise that a central plank of Powering up Britain is the storage of CO2 under the North Sea — initially in capturing emissions from a planned gas-fired power plant on Teesside, but with more to follow.
However, scientific experts have pointed out that such carbon capture and storage (CCS) has very high lifetime emissions, heavy running costs and very poor records of working as promised. There is little merit in pursuing CCS, except for industries like steel which are very hard to decarbonise.
Among other measures announced are boosts for onshore wind power, hydrogen production, heat pumps, electric vehicles and nuclear power — to make up 25 per cent of electricity generation by 2050.
But nuclear power is still linked to nuclear weapons, is expensive to operate and can by no means be considered carbon-neutral over the whole cycle of uranium extraction and enrichment, and plant construction, operation and decommissioning.
To encourage households to replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps, the government plans to adjust the subsidy rules, so that gas bills go up by as much as £100 a year, while electricity bills come down. Well-off families will easily be able to afford that, while the burden will fall on those on low incomes.
In addition, despite the availability of government grants, there are major unresolved problems with heat pumps: noise, running costs, inability to respond rapidly to temperature changes and domestic disruption due to the installation of buffer tanks, wider-bore connecting pipes and much bigger radiators.
Hydrogen, or a hydrogen-natural gas mix, for home heating is a possible alternative, but it looks likely that the government will go initially for “blue” rather than “green” hydrogen. The latter can be generated via renewable electricity, but the former involves “steam reforming” with hydrocarbons — sustaining the fossil fuel industry but still emitting greenhouse gases.
What is missing from the government’s plans is a comprehensive programme of home insulation, which would go a long way to cutting carbon emissions while providing more comfort at the same time.
Likewise, an emphasis on cheap, reliable integrated public transport would reduce the need for private motorised transport using fossil fuels.
Britain, and the world, need more action. Next month’s The Big One, a mobilisation at the House of Commons organised by Extinction Rebellion and backed by an alliance of unions and campaigners, deserves wide support.
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