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Ivor's blog: The PM's new green vision for the UK

There are technology challenges that need to be overcome in nuclear; but it is a simple fact is that nuclear is a low carbon form of energy.

Ivor Catto is executive board director of Atkins

Climate change was top of the agenda at the annual CBI Conference in November. The CBI Climate Change Task Force issued a report after ten months' intensive work by 18 chairman and chief executives from some of the UK's biggest companies. The message was clear: business needs to do a lot more to reduce carbon emissions.

The government's 2020 targets are 'likely to be missed', but the 2050 goals can be achieved at a manageable cost, if a 'greater sense of urgency' is now adopted. The report called for firms to 'fundamentally change their business models' to adapt to the era of climate change.

Just a week before the CBI news came a major speech from the Prime Minister, calling for even tougher targets to be set for emissions. On transportation, the PM is in favour of cutting vehicle emissions by more than half, no later than 2025. And among a bundle of pledges on energy efficiency, all new homes will be 'zero carbon' by 2016.

Coming from a company which is involved in the sustainability challenge from end to end – from nuclear to renewables, from water to waste – the first question that comes to my mind is: what challenges do we need to overcome to have any chance of making the Prime Minister's vision a reality?

Let's take a look at the six major issues which need to be addressed:

1. Is new nuclear build part of our low carbon future? A decision is expected later this year, after the extended consultation period is completed. The government has made clear that its 'preliminary view' is to support a new generation of nuclear power stations. And there is likely to be a second Energy White Paper in the next session of Parliament to address the nuclear questions specifically. But how will the government's decision be affected if there is a strong public opposition expressed through the consultation? Our view at Atkins is that a new generation of nuclear power makes sense if we are serious about making deep cuts in emissions. There are technology challenges that need to be overcome in nuclear; but it is a simple fact is that nuclear is a low carbon form of energy.

2. Fast-forwarding the recent White Paper – Planning for a Sustainable Future – into legislation should be a priority. It's our planning laws which are holding up too many clean energy projects for too long. As the Royal Academy of Engineering pointed out in 2006, one of the two major barriers to the development of wind energy is obtaining planning approvals. As a result, wind is not fulfilling its enormous potential in the UK, unlike Denmark, a similarly windy country! The economics of wind power make the case even more compelling. In countries where it is most established, wind power is becoming price-competitive with energy from fossil fuels.

3. The issue of subsidies for renewables like solar needs to be looked at again. Are we going to consider the kind of 'feeder tariffs' which gave grid operators in Germany the economic incentive to connect new renewable installations? The UK's Renewables Obligation has set targets, rising annually, for electricity suppliers. But there are important lessons to be learned from the German experience, which has given them one of the most advanced solar industries in the world.

4. The Prime Minister talked about 'investing' in technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS). Given the importance of CCS as an intermediate technology which could allow for the much cleaner use of fossil fuels, how much is the government prepared to invest? Given the scale of the investments required, deployment of CCS within the timeframe which is needed to start making deep cuts in emissions could depend on significant public support. This year's Energy White Paper talked about funding a competition for a CCS demonstration project. Does there need to be a bigger commitment?

5. How realistic is it to set goals for a 'carbon free industry'? It is difficult to find a definition of these terms which would be acceptable to engineers working in the field. It is also very hard to see how carbon can be eliminated completely from new industry and construction, even with a full suite of renewable technologies and tough energy efficiency standards in place. It might be more productive to talk about 'low carbon', so that the objective is to make the CO2 emissions from our principal economic activities as low as possible, rather than a notional (and probably unobtainable) 'zero'.

6. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is just one part of the Sustainability challenge facing the UK and the world. London's Olympic Delivery Authority has produced a very impressive Sustainability Strategy for 2012 which places the carbon issue alongside water, waste, transport, biodiversity, employment, and health – to name just a few. The government could consider the ODA as both a leader and an educator for UK industry, as we strive to address the complex and interconnected series of problems which make up the A-Z of true Sustainability with a capital 'S'.

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