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Low carbon: There’s no commitment issue here

As we head towards Copenhagen’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in December, NCE has teamed up with the Construction Industry Council for a regular series to help the profession engage with this important milestone.

The goal is to give civil engineers insight into the issues under discussion, the policies being brought forward and the role that engineering professionals will need to play in the future. This week, Antony Oliver starts by looking at the UK government’s plan to move the nation towards a low-carbon future.

This December the city of Copenhagen will host one of the most important gatherings of world leaders ever as they meet to agree a plan which could safeguard the future of the planet.

The hope is that they will leave the 12-day negotiating session having signed up to a set of binding carbon reduction targets to supersede those agreed in Kyoto in 1997. The hope is also that, unlike Kyoto, these targets and any accompanying treaty will this time be universally ratified by the world’s leading nations.

This December the city of Copenhagen will host one of the most important gatherings of world leaders ever.

The latter point is vitally important. It is now widely accepted that to avoid the most globally catastrophic effects of climate change we need to limit the rise of global temperature to just 2°C.

Without universal action to stem greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures could rise by up to 6°C by the end of this century.

Fortunately the UK government appears to be taking a robust position on the need to reach a binding and enforceable agreement in Copenhagen. It has made it clear that to hit the 2°C target global emissions must start falling before 2020 and then fall to at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. Climate change secretary Ed Miliband insists that he will be demanding an “ambitious” Copenhagen (See box below).

Miliband’s ambitious global agreement

“The transition to a low-carbon economy will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century.”

Ed Miliband, Secretary of State, department of energy and climate change

Ed Miliband

The UK government will go to Copenhagen with the intention of striking a global deal to tackle climate change, which should be “ambitious, effective and fair”.

Ambitious

  • Strong commitments to reduce emissions from both developed and developing countries.
  • Cover all sources of emissions, including aviation and shipping and deforestation.

Effective

  • Establish a reformed and expanded global carbon market.
  • Enable low-carbon and adaptive technologies to be developed and disseminated.
  • Provide robust monitoring, reporting and verification.

Fair

  • Support developing countries to adapt to the climate change that is now unavoidable.
  • Provide sufficient finance, technological assistance and capacity building to enable developing countries to take action on both mitigation and adaptation.
  • Establish governance structures that strengthen the voice of developing countries

For information on the climate change negotiations visit the government’s official website at www.actioncopenhagen.gov.uk

 

But aware that tackling climate change is also about leading by example, he has also just published a White Paper setting out the UK’s strategy to achieve the desired carbon reduction over the next decade (see ‘Changes ove the next 10 years’ article).

“The transition to a low-carbon economy will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century,” says Miliband in his introduction to the government’s recently published Low Carbon Transition Plan. “Saving carbon can become part of how business is done.”

“Saving carbon can become part of how business is done.”

Ed Miliband, Secretary of State, department of energy and climate change

Miliband describes this White Paper as “the UK’s first ever comprehensive low-carbon transition plan”. He reckons it will deliver emission cuts of 18% on 2008 levels by 2020 − equivalent to a reduction of more than a third on 1990 levels.

The driving force for the government’s transition plan is the Climate Change Act, which came into force last year and uniquely sets out legally binding targets for the UK to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

It also sets out a series of five-year carbon budgets to 2022 to ensure that the UK remains on track to achieve its goal (see box below) throughout the transition to a low-carbon future.

UK carbon budgets

 Budget 1 (2008 to 2012)Budget 2 (2013 to 2018)Budget 3 (2018 to 2022)
Budget level (MtCO2e)301827822544
Reduction below 1990 levels22%28%34%

UK carbon budgets

 

As the transition plan explains, the next decade is critical not only in terms of making the necessary changes to reduce emissions and control climate change, but also in terms of taking the initiatives that will ensure the UK leads the way in the development of low-carbon technologies.

In short, the challenge must be seen as an economic opportunity and not simply a huge financial burden − a burden that the world’s current finances can ill-afford.

The challenge must be seen as an economic opportunity and not simply a huge financial burden.

Central to the plan is a massive overhaul of energy supply. The UK has committed itself to sourcing 15% of all energy needs − for electricity, heating and transport − from renewable sources by 2020.

And by the end of the next decade some 40% of electricity will come from low-carbon sources − 30% of which will be renewable following a massive £120M cash injection. Wind power resources will be a particular focus.

Only last week it was announced that £10M of grant funding from this pot would support a deal between UK banks and the European Investment Bank to lever in up to £4bn of cash for new wind farms over the next three years.

There will also be support for private investment in new nuclear power, not least with the new Independent Planning Commission easing the path to construction.

Investment in research and development is central to Miliband’s plan to take advantage of the £3 trillion world low-carbon market.

Carbon capture and storage technology will also be developed in a bid to lead the world’s vital hunt for a solution to the global problem of burning coal via a £400M research funding pot for new low-carbon technologies.

This investment in research and development is central to Miliband’s plan to take advantage of the estimated £3 trillion world low-carbon market which he says could employ more than 1M people in the UK by the middle of the next decade.

The government believes that successful carbon capture and storage technology could bring up to £4bn a year to the UK economy by 2030 and support between 30,000 and 60,000 jobs.

Climate Change Act

The Climate Change Act made the UK the first country in the world to adopt a long-term legal framework for reducing emissions: a system of five-year “carbon budgets” that provide a clear pathway for reducing emissions into the future.

The government announced the first three budgets, covering the periods in April 2009 (see box above). These budgets are in line with those recommended by the Committee on Climate Change and are on course to cut emissions by 80% in 2050.

 

“The transition gives us the chance to lead the clean industries of the future,” says Miliband. “In demonstrating the technology to capture carbon dioxide and lock it away we can lay the pipes and the infrastructure for new, sustainable industrial hubs, and we gain the engineering knowledge to win contracts to install it in other countries.”

It is a similar story across the whole low-carbon sector as Miliband sets course to “build the UK’s position as a global centre of green manufacturing in low-carbon sectors”. To support the new era of renewable power generation the government will also kick-start an overhaul of the grid system.

Last month energy regulator Ofgem revealed a new regime to open up competition to construct new offshore grid connections worth £15bn. It also revealed a relaxation of rules to make it easier for National Grid to provide vital new grid connections for renewable energy schemes. The vision for a future smart grid will follow later in the year.

Miliband admits that, in the short term at least, there will be a price to be paid by consumers.

But all this investment in low-carbon energy comes at a cost. Miliband admits that, in the short term at least, there will be a price to be paid by consumers.

“The policies in this transition plan will increase household energy bills,” says the government.

“By 2020, the additional impact of all the policies in this plan, relative to today, is equivalent to approximately a 6% increase from current energy bills. When previously announced climate policies are included, this figure is 8%.”

So, crucially, there are also plans to help householders soften this impact with a package of government support worth £3.2bn − first to tackle fuel poverty, but also to help households become more energy efficient.

“By 2020, the additional impact of all the policies in this plan is equivalent to approximately a 6% increase from current energy bills.”

Government White Paper

“The plan to 2020 will cut emissions from homes by 29% on 2008 levels, introduce further measures to protect the most vulnerable and improve the security of our gas supplies, a third of which is used in our homes,” says the White Paper.

This will include putting smart meters in every home by 2020, piloting “pay as you save” schemes to help lever in private investment in upgrades and clean energy cashback schemes to help individuals and businesses to benefit from investment in low-carbon energy. Well-sited solar panels could net householders more than £800, plus savings on bills of around £140 a year, says the government.

Lord Stern’s review

Lord Stern’s Review of the Economics of Climate Change (2006) identified three ways to deliver change

  1. Governments should put a price on carbon emissions to reflect the true costs of the damage caused through climate change, and to give incentives to consumers and companies to move to cleaner technologies or to change their behaviour.
  2. Government must drive the new technology and infrastructure that is needed. Businesses do not invest as much or as quickly in these areas as society needs, both because of the risks involved and because many of the benefits of investment do not accrue to the firm, but to society generally.
  3. Government must help people make low-carbon choices. People and businesses often face obstacles such as upfront costs, a lack of information, or inertia.

 

Transport will also be targeted with investment to cut emissions by 14% on 2008 levels over the next decade. The government has also made a commitment that 10% of UK transport energy will come from sustainable renewable sources by 2020.

This will include electrification of the rail network, cutting average carbon dioxide emissions from new cars by 40% to 95g/km and investing up to £30M over the next two years in low-carbon buses.

In fact, the total net costs over the lifetime of the new policies could be as high as £29bn − described by the White Paper as significant, but far outweighed by the costs if we fail to act.

Electric and low-carbon vehicles will also be key to the Transition Plan and Miliband has promised support for the “largest demonstration project in the world” into electric cars, up to £4,000 to help drive sales of new vehicles and “up to £30M to support the installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure in six or so cities across the UK”.

The government will also launch a competition to find the UK’s first Sustainable Travel City and has promised £140M to promote cycling over the next three years and £5M to improve cycle storage at rail stations. As already alluded to, there will be costs to the planned transition.

In fact, the total net costs over the lifetime of the new policies could be as high as £29bn − described by the White Paper as significant, but far outweighed by the costs if we fail to act. “The task for government is to minimise the costs of the low-carbon path and spread them fairly,” says Miliband.

  • Part 2 of NCE’s Road to Copenhagen series will be published in NCE on 20 August and will focus on the Climate Change Act. Email your thoughts and comments on this subject or any of the issues raised this week to ncelowcarbon@emap.com

Copenhagen Summit 09

COP15 Copenhagen

The United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place 7-18 December in Copenhagen:http://en.cop15.dk

What do you want to see from the COP15? ncelowcarbon@emap.com

Further reading:

  • Sustainable Development Without The Hot Airby David JC MacKay
  • Six Degrees − Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas

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