climate change current affairs energy politics transition towns

Britain goes low carbon

On wednesday the government rolled out the next stage in its series of climate change directives, and this is the most important one so far. The UK Carbon Transition Plan is a national strategy for climate and energy, a ten-year plan for cutting the UK’s carbon emissions down to size. I’ve been reading it. It’s good.

The white paper divides the economy into sections and deals with them one at a time, across energy, homes, business, transport, and farming. Each sector has different targets to meet by 2020, rather than an overall flat rate of carbon cutting:

Power – 22%
The energy sector will deliver half of the overall emission cuts, by loading them into the EU Emissions Trading System, giving businesses an financial incentive to generate greener electricity. Furthermore, a third of our electricity will come from renewable sources by 2020 if all goes to plan, a vision for a new smart grid will be announced by the end of this year, and a new generation of nuclear power stations could be online by 2025.

There’s plenty to celebrate here, with more renewables than expected, and a realistic approach to the possibilities of carbon capture and storage. There’s little talk of small-scale energy generation, but that would need the smart grid. One hopes the new grid plans later this year will redress that balance a little.

If there’s a Achilles heel, it’s the dependence on the EU trading scheme. It’s a good idea in theory, but it relies on the EU to make it work. Their initial pilot trading scheme hasn’t reduced carbon emissions at all, because it gave polluting industries very generous credits. If the system is going to deliver, it has to be much tougher, and the EU is never tough with big business. The EU could end up undoing the British government’s good work here.

Homes and communities – 29%
Last year the government announced that from 2016, every new-build house will need to be zero carbon. What to do with the existing housing stock is a little trickier. The transition plan calls for large scale efficiency measures, with a welcome priority on low-income households. There’s also the long-awaited feed-in tariff, which will make solar power affordable for ordinary people, and smart meters in every home by 2020.

It’s great to see a focus on community action, and acknowledgement that action is easier taken together. Milliband even mentioned the transition towns movement in his speech.

Two things are missing here however, in my opinion. One is the broader sustainability perspective. The underlying assumptions about the way we live aren’t questioned. Perhaps Ed Milliband needs to watch ‘The End of Suburbia’. The second problem is the time frames. Will it really take 11 years to fit a smart meter in every home?

Business – 13%
There’s quite a lot of cross-over with other sections here, with investment in renewable energy, and retraining people to work in it. Polluting industries will be brought into the trading scheme, forcing them to price carbon into their accounting.Funds will be available to help businesses switch to cleaner technology, and there’s lots of talk about educating businesses and supporting efficiency and waste reduction measures, through bodies like the Carbon Trust and Envirowise.

Transport – 14%
Lots of different ideas in this section, including tighter legistlation on carbon dioxide emissions from new cars, low carbon buses, and getting the government departments to lead by example in procuring more efficient vehicles. Cycling gets a nod, with training for children and plans for better bike storage at railway stations, although later it mentions that this will be at 10 major cities rather than universal, which is a little unambitious.

The right to drive, as usual, is completely taken for granted, and the plan puts far too many eggs in the electric car basket. There will be grants for people buying electric cars, £30 million for charging points, and of course the large scale demonstration project announced a couple of weeks ago. The truth is, we really need to drive less, and reduce our dependence on cars full stop.

An even bigger flaw is aviation. The government says it is committed to keeping aviation emissions below 2005 levels by 2050, while allowing passenger numbers to grow. The report suggests that these miraculous emissions limits are “likely to be met through more efficient engines and other new technologies.” Considering those technologies don’t exist, and planes have a long life-span, I’d say that it’s highly unlikely. The government continues to show ridiculous favouritism to the aviation industry. There is simply no place for cheap flights in a sustainable economy, sadly.

Farming and land management- 6%
It’s good to see land use included in the transition plan, as it’s often forgotten in the talk about energy and transport. Measures here include reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill, and making use of landfill emissions for energy generation. Recycling and composting will be encouraged.

On the farming front, the report optimistically suggests that farmers will “take action themselves” to reduce their emissions, through different breeding techniques, manuring, and fertiliser use. The government will then review these voluntary actions in 2012 to see if they need to legislate instead. I think I can safely predict the result there and save them the trouble.

Another problem, like housing and transport, is the basic assumption that we can reform and tweak what we already have, rather than changing the system. Everything here is about industrial scale agriculture. There’s no talk of organics, of local food, seasonal food, or encouraging people to grow their own – huge oversights all.

In summary
On the whole, this is a welcome document, and proof that the government is taking climate change seriously. There are a lot of bold and important measures, and campaigners will find much to cheer about.

On the other hand, there’s nothing to upset the voters. This is a very safe, and therefore inadequate plan. Everything works within our existing lifestyles, and doesn’t put any major demands on us.

Finally, as Rob Hopkins points out in more detail in his thoughtful review of the plans, the government has left peak oil out of its thinking. Despite the use of the word ‘transition’ and the clear inspiration, there is no engagement with the issue of depletion. Milliband’s introduction does name-check north sea oil decline, but there’s little sense of urgency, and the opportunity to build peak oil into the transition plan has been missed. Looks like we’ll have to do that bit ourselves.

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