Thursday, 7 May 2009

We have the energy for a green future

Labour's only bold green budget initiative was a Conservative idea – only our policies will ensure a low-carbon future

Greg Clark, Wednesday 6 May 2009 11.04 BST

For the best part of a decade, Britain has had no energy policy to speak of. As a result, we are grossly unprepared for the decade ahead, during which much of Britain's current electricity-generating capacity is due to be closed down and we will move from being a net exporter of oil and gas to importing 80% of our supplies from overseas. All this while we face stringent binding targets for renewable energy and the reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result of this vacuum in energy policy, the scramble to replace our energy supplies and to meet our climate change duties will mean that the actions needed are more costly and uncertain (pdf) than if they had been planned and executed in an orderly way.
The budget was the last major opportunity this year to take action to move towards a low-carbon economy. Policies to decarbonise the UK economy should never be treated as some sort of sideshow or distraction. Nor should they be seen as an irrelevance during a time of economic downturn. "Green" policies do a lot more than protect our environment; they create immediate new jobs in construction, manufacturing and services, they reduce energy bills through greater efficiency and they will help reduce our balance of payments deficit in the longer term by reducing our dependence on imported fossil fuels. We should be using the downturn to make this conversion to a more resilient economy, not putting the problem off again until the next unsustainable boom turns to bust.
A week before the budget George Osborne and I set out 10 policies that, if they were announced, would have the support of the Conservative party. As well as laying the foundations for a stable, competitive and low-carbon future for Britain, they would unleash £30bn of private sector investment.
Against that benchmark, the budget itself was a great disappointment. The government failed to take up the biggest and most obvious green boost of all: to bring about a step change in the energy efficiency of our homes, currently among the worst in Europe.
For most homes, investment in energy efficiency actually saves money as well as CO2. So giving every household an entitlement to £6,500 of efficiency improvements, with the cost repaid through savings in people's fuel bills, would save money and create much-needed jobs in the construction sector. It is inexplicable that this opportunity has been missed.
It is also a blow that there was no plan to upgrade our electricity grid. Smart technology and new marine electricity cables could combine to allow greater use of renewables – especially from offshore – and allow demand to be managed. This is essential if new technologies like electric vehicles are not to outstrip the capacity of a generating system. It is mystifying that the rollout of smart meters – giving people the information and ability to manage their energy use – will not take place until the end of 2020, when they are being installed across the world right now.
The temporary increase in the level of support for offshore wind is a recognition that achieving our 2020 target for 14.5% of energy to come from renewables is a distant prospect. Currently we generate less than 2% of our energy in this way, the lowest level of any major European country.
The one genuinely bold measure mentioned in the budget, and expanded upon the next day, was the government's decision to adopt longstanding Conservative plans to invest in the infrastructure to support Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for new coal-burning power stations, and to require all new coal plants to be partially carbon-abated in this way. It is frustrating that in this crucial technology – in which British know-how, skills and geological assets in the form of depleted North Sea wells give us a huge advantage – we have ceded leadership to Germany, China and the US.
I hope that it will not be too late to catch up. The country that leads the development of CCS will unlock the potential for many thousands of jobs and investments around the world during the decades ahead.
There are still some questions to be answered as to how this investment will be funded, and when it will finally happen, but the adoption of this part of our 10-point plan is a very welcome step forward.
Just as time ran out for the government's stewardship of the economy, it is fast running out on its ability to secure Britain's energy needs and meet our international obligations. Now is the time for action, and Conservatives will be pushing the government to implement the new CCS policy without further delay and to turn again to the opportunities to secure a low-carbon future for Britain.

China ready for post-Kyoto deal on climate change

Dramatic reversal in US position under Obama has brought Beijing to the table on emission cuts, says UK climate secretary

Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent, Wednesday 6 May 2009 18.52 BST

China is ready to abandon its resistance to limits on its carbon emissions and wants to reach an international deal to fight global warming, the Guardian has learned.
According to Britain's climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, who met senior officials in Beijing this week, China is ready to "do business" with developed countries to reach an agreement to replace the Kyoto treaty.
Miliband said he was encouraged by the change in tone since late last year in the country that emits more greenhouse gases than any other. "I think they're up for a deal. I get the strong impression that they want an agreement," he told the Guardian.
"They see the impact of climate change on China and they know the world is moving towards a low-carbon economy and see the business opportunities that will come with that."
The shift in the Chinese position significantly improves the chances of an agreement being reached when world leaders meet in Copenhagen in December to negotiate a deal that scientists say is critical if dangerous warming is to be avoided.
While Britain and the European Union – which have a large historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions – are pushing for ambitious reduction targets at home, no global climate deal will be possible in Copenhagen without the agreement of China and the US, which together are responsible for more than 40% of the world's annual carbon emissions.
China's official negotiating position is unchanged, but the government is understood to be preparing a set of targets up to and beyond 2020 to lower the country's "carbon intensity". This translates to cutting the emissions needed to produce each unit of economic growth.
Miliband said Barack Obama's pledge to reduce US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 has unblocked the international negotiating process.
"China used to think the developed world is not serious. That's what they were saying [at UN talks] in December," he said. "But now they know the US is on the pitch and ready to engage with them. It has made a real difference to what China is saying."
His comments echoed the message from Chinese officials. Su Wei, a senior negotiator, told the Guardian last month that the US had made a "substantive change" under the Obama administration.
"The message we have got is that the current US administration takes climate change seriously, that it recognises its historical responsibility and that it has the capacity to help developing countries address climate change," Su said.
But while the tone may have changed, there is still a long way to go before agreement can be reached on specifics.
China wants developed nations to commit to more ambitious reduction targets, to share low-carbon technology and to set up a UN fund that would buy related intellectual property rights for use across the world. Beijing's position is complicated by the fact that it already owns a large share of the patents for wind and solar energy in developed nations.
Europe and the US accept the Chinese economy should be allowed to grow further, improving the living standards of its millions of poor, before it makes overall emissions reductions. Instead, the western nations are pushing for strong measures to improve efficiency and establish caps for certain industries. One possibility being considered by Chinese officials is to set a carbon intensity goal up to 2040 that would include energy efficiency, renewable energy, transport and afforestation.
"It would be very welcome for China to set a commitment for carbon intensity," said Miliband. "It would send a signal around the world."
He was visiting Minqin county, a remote area in north-western China threatened by desertification and drought. Along with the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, the spread of deserts and the shortage of water have highlighted the destructive impact of unsustainable development and climate change.
"We're very concerned about climate change," said Xu Wenshan, the deputy mayor of Wuwei, at a welcome banquet. "Living in such an ecologically fragile area, we will feel the impact directly if there is a further rise in the temperature."
Jim Watson, of the UK's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said it had become the mainstream view in China that global warming was caused by human activity, which was not the view five years ago.
"We see significant policy shifts and encouraging developments in technology, for example phenomenal development of wind power and plug-in cars. That could be a sign of things to come," he said. "My impression is that although the negotiators haven't moved ground officially, there are a hell of a lot of new ideas. They are very interested in low-carbon economy."
Last month, the Tyndale centre published research showing that it was possible for China to begin reducing its total emissions from 2020.
Government officials say that is unrealistic and China has so far resisted announcing a target for when emissions might peak. But the authorities tend towards the later end of the various academic forecasts of between 2020 and 2040.
Watson noted that if emissions are measured on a historical per-capita basis, China is 78th in the world rather than first.

EPA Nominee Suggests New CO2 Rules May Expose Small Emitters


WASHINGTON -- New federal greenhouse gas emission regulation could expose a raft of smaller emitters to litigation, a nominee for a key post in the Environmental Protection Agency told lawmakers Thursday.
The potential for smaller emitters to be regulated under the Clean Air Act is one reason why business groups warn that EPA regulation of greenhouse gases could create a cascade of legal and regulatory challenges across a much broader array of sectors. The Obama administration has said that isn't their intent.
Regina McCarthy, nominated to be EPA's Director of Air and Radiation, told lawmakers that even while the government has flexibility in setting the threshold of emitting facilities to be regulated, she acknowledges the risk of lawsuits to challenge those levels for smaller emitters. Ms. McCarthy's office is responsible for drafting federal emission rules.
Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) has put a hold on Ms. McCarthy's nomination in part because of her responses on the greenhouse gas issue.
Under the Obama administration, the EPA is moving forward to declare greenhouse gas emissions a danger to public health and welfare, which will trigger new rules once finalized. The EPA says that only around 13,000 of the largest emitters, such as refiners, smelters and cement plants would likely be regulated.
Many legal experts say that based on clear Clean Air Act statutes, however, regulations could be applied to any facility that emits more than 100-250 tons a year, including hospitals, schools and farms. Taken in aggregate, farm animals are major greenhouse gas sources because of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from flatulence, belching and manure. Buildings often emit greenhouse gases from internal heating or cooling units.
"It is a myth … EPA will regulate cows, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Huts, your lawnmower and baby bottles," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said earlier this year, dismissing concerns raised by groups such as the Chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers.
But in responses to a senator's questioning, Ms. McCarthy acknowledged that legal suits could be brought against small emitters.
Asked how she would protect smaller sources against suits, Ms. McCarthy said she would talk with the litigants: "I will request that I be informed if any such notice is filed with regards to a small source, and I will follow-up with the potential litigants."
Bill Kovacs, the head of environment and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said, "There's no way she can talk to the litigants and control them." By the Chamber's estimate, there are 1.5 million facilities -- such as large office buildings that have their own boilers -- that produce over the 250-ton limit.
Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, says her group is prepared to sue for regulation of smaller emitters if the EPA stops at simply large emitters.
Write to Ian Talley at