climate change energy

The climate lock-in

Yesterday the International Energy Agency released their annual World Energy Outlook. Since many world governments take their cues from the agency’s figures, it’s well worth paying attention to what the IEA are saying. This year, they’re warning about a climate change lock-in. It’s not a term I’ve seen used much, but it’s a useful one.

Infrastructure has a long life expectancy. Houses built today will still be occupied 50 years from now. Power stations might last 25 or 30 years. So it really matters that what we build today is as future-facing as possible. If you open a new coal power station this year, you will have to account for its carbon emissions for the next quarter of a century. Policy decisions are made all the time that commit us to certain ways of life – ways of travelling, doing business, heating our homes – for decades to come.

Adding all these commitments together, you can see the total amount of CO2 that is going to be locked-in by our infrastructure choices, and that’s what the IEA presented this week:

If current development carries on in its current trajectory, the carbon budget will be maxed out by 2017. “Without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system” says the agency.

Unfortunately, the IEA is still beholden to politics and is using the benchmark of 450ppm, which many fear is far too high a concentration of CO2. 350 is a much safer target to aim for, and that puts us over the budget already.

What do we do about it? We put a moratorium on new coal power stations, streamline the planning permission for new wind farms, hold our nerve on the feed-in tariff, fund research for renewable energy technologies, and pursue efficiency measures wherever they can be found. Most importantly, we need to raise the standards for the built environment so that all new infrastructure is part of the solution and not part of the problem.


  1. The hard reality, however, is that nothing we do can make any difference as to whether or not that 450ppm level is reached:

    (We’re the little grey line bumping along the bottom.)

    Global emissions today are over twice what they were in 1970 and 50% more than they were in 1990 and there’s no sign of a slowdown: Much of the 5.9% global increase from 2009 to 2010 came from China whose emissions grew by 10% and where, in 2010, 48% of all coal burned in the world was burned. And there’s no “moratorium on new coal power stations” there – here’s an extract from a recent Economist report: “The IEA estimates that China, which generates more than 70% of its electricity with coal, will build 600 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power capacity in the next quarter-century—as much as is currently generated with coal in America, Japan and the European Union put together.”

    Total emissions from the so-called developed world were largely unchanged from 1990 to 2008, when they fell slightly due to the recession – but that fall that had little overall effect because their share of emissions fell from nearly two-thirds in 1990 to less than half today:

    As to the future and why our actions cannot affect the 450ppm level, here’s more from the IEA – its forecast to 2035 compared to the Copenhagen/Cancun target:

    1. I daresay you’re right.

      But my point is simply to demonstrate that the UK’s putting a moratorium on new coal power stations (etc.) would have no effect on whether or not the world reaches a CO2 concentration of 450ppm – i.e. you haven’t answered your own question: “What do we do about it?”

  2. I don’t claim that we get to save the world with our tiny contribution to the world’s CO2 emissions, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to act. We have to take responsibility for our emissions, and China needs to take responsibility for theirs. The more robustly we deal with our emissions, the more likely China will be to tackle hers.

    1. I suggest that an economy that “generates more than 70% of its electricity with coal [and] will build 600 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power capacity in the next quarter-century” (see above) is unlikely “to take responsibility for” its emissions. On the contrary, a recent report by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment agency sponsored by the European Commission noted that a “£400 billion stimulus package, plus billions more in soft loans that have surged into China’s economy since 2008, has seen Chinese power generation – mostly from coal – rise by 11.6 per cent in 2010, with carbon-intensive steel and cement production up 9.6 and 15.1 per cent respectively”.

      Unfortunately, the most probable result of our dealing “robustly” with our emissions is that the developing world would take up the slack as more of the few energy-intensive industries we have left closed. Have a look at this: Its conclusion: “Global leaders should give up their fixation on cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Significant cuts will not happen voluntarily anywhere. Instead, leaders should be focusing on providing as much cheap, abundant, dispatchable power to their citizens as possible.”

      1. Focus on providing as much as possible? That’s a conclusion you could only come to if you don’t agree with either climate science or resource depletion.

        1. That was a comment made by the Huffington Post reporter. And it might be interesting to discuss it – but I suggest we try to avoid another sterile debate about “climate science or resource depletion”.

          No, my point is very simple: nothing the UK does can have any noticeable effect on global emissions**. And the concept that the developing world (read my last link) will somehow mend its ways to follow our example is getting embarrassingly close to neocolonialist hubris – the “white man’s burden” and all that.

          ** Go back to my first link yesterday. Consider two extremes: either (a) we stop our CO2 emissions altogether (so that our little grey line disappears) or (b) we double our CO2 emissions (so that the little grey line gets slightly closer to Germany’s). Neither extreme would make any real difference to the overall global position.

  3. No Robin, it has nothing to do with us setting an example, and everything to do with global cooperation. This isn’t a western problem that we need to convince the rest of the world to join us in solving. It’s a global issue that can only be solved if everyone works together, otherwise those that ignore it get a free ride on the back of those that do the right thing.

    China has as much to lose from climate change as anyone else and is well aware of it – it’s why it is investing more heavily in clean energy (and can afford to do so, unlike us) than any other country on the planet. But it’s not going to move an inch further than anyone else does. The more we hedge our bets and wait for everyone else to move first, the more likely it is that the climate will pass a tipping point and be beyond our control.

    But of course this is largely academic to you, which is why I’m not especially excited about ploughing into another pointless debate.

    1. Jeremy: I’ve provided you (above) with a wealth of data that shows unambiguously that the world’s developing economies, whatever their public statements about AGW, have committed themselves comprehensively to fossil fuel based development. As I’ve shown, it’s a commitment that’s set to continue for the foreseeable future. And that’s despite more than twenty years of exhortation about “everyone working together” to reduce emissions. Yet, far from China’s, for example, being ready “to move an inch” towards emission reduction, it’s intent on rushing miles away in the opposite direction. There’s nothing “academic” about this – it’s the hard reality of the world we inhabit.

      As you seem determined to dismiss these inconvenient facts when I mention them, I refer you to Fred Pearce – who, as you may know, is an environment consultant for the “New Scientist” and as concerned as you about AGW. See this recent article in the Guardian): His conclusion:

      “Nobody expects a UN climate deal in Durban this year — nor next year, nor the year after. But meanwhile the coal keeps burning. Global production is set to rise by 35 percent in the coming decade, according to industry analysts.”

  4. I don’t dispute your facts, I just think you’re selective with them. I also think you write off any possibility of a deal because you don’t think there should be one, so it’s a non starter.

    1. These are not “my” facts. That’s why I referred you to Fred Pearce. Is he being selective about the facts? I’ve no doubt that he, just as much as you, would wish to see a deal. But note again what he said: “Nobody expects a UN climate deal in Durban this year — nor next year, nor the year after.”

      To get back to my initial observation: the hard reality is that nothing we (the UK) do (your suggested “moratorium on new coal power stations” etc.) can make any difference as to whether or not that 450ppm level is reached. My comments here relate specifically to that domestic reality.

  5. I know our actions won’t make a big difference to global emissions and I know it’ll be a miracle if anything comes out of Durban. But that doesn’t mean we get to do nothing about our emissions. Our emissions are the only ones we can reduce, so my comments are about the UK’s.

    1. I agree with your first and third sentences. As to the second, I don’t see much point: the UK’s priority, I suggest, should to face up to the uncertainties about how climate change may affect us over the next 10 – 40 years and to determine how best to cope. This would, of course, have to be done in the context of a deteriorating economic situation.

      1. The worst consequences of climate change fall on those least responsible – on developing countries. If we ignore our carbon emissions and let the poor hang, history will judge us as severely as those that turned a blind eye to the slave trade.

        There’s also the small matter of the world we leave to our children. Complacency on climate change is a huge failure of stewardship and an inter-generational injustice.

        I personally don’t care how minuscule the chances of success might be – the right thing to do remains the right thing to do. Call me an idealist if you wish.

        1. Even if dangerous climate change is the inevitable consequence of mankind’s CO2 emissions (and that hypothesis is far from being verified – although I don’t recommend that we reopen that debate here), we’ve already agreed that whatever we do in the UK can make no appreciable difference to the outcome. What is clear, however, is that the actions nonetheless proposed for the UK by most of those determined to reduce emissions will inflict further damage on our already tottering economy, with grim consequences for our children’s and grandchildren’s quality of life, for fuel bills (impacting in particular the poorest in society) for energy availability and for our precious and fragile local environments. That alone would be a “huge failure of stewardship and an intergenerational injustice”.

          Far worse, however, are the consequences of similar actions that some (often for the best of idealistic motives) would wish to impose on the underdeveloped world. There more expensive or non-existent energy (a consequence of CO2 restriction) would mean that clean water, proper sanitation, fresh food, adequate health care, better education, etc. will be either unavailable or hopelessly expensive. Moreover, inadequate energy supply is a major cause of political instability and violence, affecting, in particular, some of the world’s poorest and most helpless people. In my view, it’s immoral that, for example, many of the most vulnerable and deprived children in Africa may have their hope of a better life prejudiced because comfortable and complacent people in the West, people who take reliable energy for granted, are obsessed by an unverified hypothesis.

  6. You don’t accept the science of climate change, and so once again, we end up without the common ground to discuss any of this. You can’t say ‘let’s not reopen the debate’, because it’s absolutely fundamental to what I’m talking about.

    So let’s not waste each other’s time. We’ve been around this enough times now to know that nothing productive comes of it.

    1. It’s completely untrue to say that I don’t accept the science of climate change. I do: but the science doesn’t reach the conclusions you attribute to it. However, there’s no need to reopen that old debate as this exchange is based on the assumption that your interpretation of the science is correct.

      And here we have established common ground: we have agreed that (a) whatever we do in the UK would make little difference to overall global emissions and (b) “it’ll be a miracle if anything comes out of Durban”. Therefore, there’s no point in taking actions in the UK to reduce emissions when the consequence would be as I state above.

      (Even less BTW, would there be any purpose in visiting harm on some of the world’s poorest people – again as I indicate above. However, as we’re discussing the UK, that’s not an issue that’s relevant here.)

  7. No, we’re fundamentally talking about different things. I’m talking about a man-made problem that we have a responsibility to fix. You’re talking about if and how we respond to a natural phenomenon. Completely different, and your view has none of the moral urgency that I see here.

    1. You’re not paying attention. For the sake of this discussion, I’m assuming your understanding of the science is correct (i.e. that the problem is man-made) and pointing out that there is no logic in your proposed solution for the UK. Far from fixing the problem, It would do harm and produce no benefit – except perhaps to your tender conscience. So-called “moral urgency” that does harm – further undermining of our economy, with grim consequences for our children’s and grandchildren’s quality of life, increased fuel bills (impacting in particular the poorest in society), reduced energy availability and damage to our precious and fragile local environment – is hardly moral.

      1. Anyway, Jeremy, I’m away from my computer for 24 hours – and will revert when I get back. Please try to get back on topic.

        A reminder: you observed in your heading post that the targeted benchmark of 450ppm is far too high a concentration of CO2 and 350 much safer. So, we’re “over the budget already” you said and asked: what do we (the UK) do about it? That, I believe, is the topic of this discussion.

  8. First of all, can you stop patronising me if you want to carry on an actual discussion.

    Second, follow through on what you claim you’re doing: if you are assuming that I’m correct about the science, then you have to also assume that this is a matter of justice and a moral issue too. Otherwise you’re admitting that our actions are causing harm to others, but saying that that’s acceptable.

    And yes, those are the things that we in Britain need to do in response to being over the carbon budget. No, it does not solve the problem in and of itself – no action by any one party can. But it deals with our emissions, and if take responsibility for ours, it makes it more likely that others will deal with theirs, moving the debate from “I won’t if you won’t” to “I will if you will”. This is about cooperation.

    Besides, there are more reasons to fix our energy systems than just climate change. The rising price of gas has us on a hiding to nothing as it is. We have nothing to lose from pressing ahead with a renewable energy revolution. Done right, there is no reason why it would disadvantage the poor, or cripple the economy, or savage the environment. It is the status quo that is, and will continue to do all three of those things.

    1. The difficulty with justice and with moral issues is that action to remedy them is too often subject to the law of unintended consequences – where good intentions unwittingly cause harm to others. Re the UK and our “response to being over the carbon budget”, that is precisely my concern – and I find it unacceptable. A few pointers:

      1. “Green” energy policy is already increasing prices. And it’s set to get worse – hitting, in particular, the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Hardly just or moral.

      2. Worse, one aspect of the above – renewable subsidies – takes money from the poor and gives it to the rich: Robin Hood in reverse. And that includes BTW transfers to rich landowners such as Cameron’s father-in-law. Where’s the justice or morality there?

      3. Renewables, especially windmills, are industrialising and destroying parts of our wildest and most precious and beautiful countryside. Yet they are a pitifully inefficient way of generating electricity. Where’s the morality there and what’s the point?

      4. So-called green jobs have been shown to destroy more jobs than they create. Where’s the morality, or good sense, in that?

      5. Moreover, more expensive energy also destroys existing jobs as businesses become increasingly uncompetitive. Those put out of work would find it hard to detect the morality involved.

      6. And, where those businesses are big energy users, the jobs destroyed are commonly exported to the developing world along with the emissions we “save”. Whatever is the logic in exporting jobs and emissions?

      7. But it’s usually worse even than that: manufacture in the developing world is typically “dirtier” and less environmentally friendly than it is here – so global emissions, pollution and harm to people are increased as a direct result of our policy. How can that be just or moral?

      8. In particular, most manufacture of renewables (windmill, solar panel and electric vehicle components) is carried out in the developing world – in “dirty” (typically coal burning) factories. And it’s especially damaging as it involves the environmentally ghastly mining and processing of rare earth metals. How can anyone regard that as wise or “moral”?

      And so on. Truly – this is not just a debating point – I find it impossible to see how any of these outcomes is just or moral. I suppose it might be possible to construct a case in their favour (although I doubt it) if they were a contribution to a greater good – a worthwhile sacrifice in other words. But even that doesn’t bear examination. As we’ve discussed, even if the UK made a substantial net saving in its CO2 emissions, it would make no real impact on the global position. We’ve agreed that there’s no mileage in the concept of our setting an example and the “concerted action / moving together” concept has failed despite being tested to destruction. Even if that were not so, the remote possibility of it’s succeeding hardly justifies action with the consequences I detail above.

      I’m really sorry, Jeremy, if you find these observations patronising. They’re not intended to be – they reflect my strongly and genuinely held concerns.

      1. Is it really green energy policy that is pushing up the price of energy? Out of an average household dual-fuel bill of £1000 a year, they account for £42. I posted Ofgem’s breakdown here:

        Energy prices are rising mainly because of growing global demand, and because our own North Sea output peaked in 99 and we’re now a net importer of gas. Renewable energy makes us more energy independent, and therefore less susceptible to price rises – but, like anything, it requires the upfront investment capital now and that’s going to cost us. No way around that, but we’ll be better off for it in the long term.

        The Feed-in-Tariff is regressive on paper, and that’s unfortunate. There are alternative ways to fund it that would have been fairer. However, one of the biggest adopters of the feed-in tariff have been housing associations, using solar installations to deliver cheaper energy for their residents. So it’s regressive on paper, and it’s effect in practice is more mixed.

        But I find your double-standard here a little odd. A measure that takes £42 a year from poor households is unacceptable, but ignoring emissions that are robbing people of their homes and livelihoods is okay? If you want to ‘play along’ and accept my man-made view of climate change for the sake of debate, then follow through and accept that our actions translate into very real hardships in other parts of the world.

        Green jobs have been shown to destroy more jobs than they create? That’s a absurd generalisation and utterly impossible to back up given how broad the category of green jobs is – did you get that from Delingpole?

        I’m afraid you’re going to have to do better than this tired set of objections.

        1. Three observations:

          1. Green energy policy and prices. Perhaps you didn’t see last week’s Panorama? Here’s a summary: (Note BTW that, with the advent of shale gas, US gas prices are falling and that seems likely to be true globally – totally transforming “energy independence issues.) I can provide further support for both issues if you wish.

          2. “Double standard”? If emissions are, as you say, “robbing people of their homes and livelihoods”, that’s massively offset by the immense benefit gained by the hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who have been lifted out of poverty by the availability of energy produced by fossil fuel burning power plants – the very opposite of hardship. Moreover, even if that were not so, actions in the UK that make no real difference to global emissions (see detailed discussion above) are not going to help anyway.

          3. Green jobs destroying jobs elsewhere – “impossible to back up”? Hmm .. see this: (I can produce further evidence if you wish.)

          Tired objections? I don’t think so. And then there’s my points 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 which you somehow overlooked – and 2 which you accept. No – the law of unintended consequences clearly applies.

          1. Yes, impossible to back up – that’s a paper about Spain’s renewable energy bubble, and even the paper itself can’t prove that jobs were destroyed. Even if it’s right, and I question its methodology, in no way can you generalise across all ‘green’ jobs, across all sectors and countries. Bubble subsidies can occur in any sector. It proves nothing at all about the value of green jobs themselves, only the policies used to encourage them.

            I haven’t watched the episode of panorama you mention, but I’m aware of its arguments. Did you look at my link? I’m using Ofgem’s figures, which breakdown householder bills and point out that social and environmental obligations are 6% of our bills. Of course renewable energy is costing us money – as I said above, it needs investment and it will pay off in the longer term, but the wholesale price of gas is a much bigger factor.

            I’m all in favour of increased access to energy, but there’s every reason to make that renewable energy. Developing countries building in a fossil fuel dependency right now aren’t doing themselves any favours, regardless of climate change. How are they going to feel about the rising fuel bills as competition for gas increases?

            I’m not going through all your points systematically, because they’re all derived from the same point, that renewable energy is bad energy policy. I disagree, I think the price is worth paying, but then I accept climate science and the realities of resource depletion, and you don’t.

          2. Jeremy: once again, you try to change the subject by asserting that I “don’t accept climate science”. You know that’s false: the reality is that my reading of the science differs from yours. Repeating the claim in this thread, only serves to demonstrate the paucity of your argument.

  9. No, I repeat it because it seems obvious to me that you know what it is you think, and you only see ‘evidence’ that supports your view – like obscure Spanish papers that are critical of renewable energy policy. Your skepticism is crucial to the matter, and the only reason why our discussions never go anywhere.

    1. You won’t, I think, be surprised to learn that I could say the same about you. But I choose not to because I consider it best to debate with courtesy and not to descend to insult. I’ve made it wholly clear that my arguments in this thread are based squarely and honestly on the assumption that your understanding of the science is correct. And, on that basis, I’ve produced abundant evidence that demonstrates that your “green” proposals for the UK would not produce the result you hope for. Moreover, I have produced further evidence that your proposals might well be harmful. I suspect it’s your inability to counter my evidence that has prompted your unfortunate attempts to change the subject.

      The Spanish study, produced by the respected Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, was not “obscure”. Here’s the key passage from its Executive Summary: “Most important, it demonstrates that the Spanish/EU-style “green jobs” agenda now being promoted in the U.S. in fact destroys jobs, detailing this in terms of jobs destroyed per job created and the net destruction per installed MW.” It goes on to produce sound evidence in support of that. I said above that I can produce further such evidence. Here’s an example:

  10. You haven’t produced abundant evidence, you’ve trotted out a series of predictable and hackneyed objections to renewable energy, from the expense, to windmills ruining the landscape. Of course renewable energy is expensive – we’re trying to fund an energy revolution. But do you want to wait and see how expensive it gets trying to run an economy on fossil fuels as the world develops and warms?

    Yes, the Spanish study is obscure, and I suspect you only know about it because it cropped up on some skeptic blog. The Verso study makes the same somewhat bizarre assumption as the Spanish one, that subsidising renewable energy represents an opportunity cost, and that if you spent that money elsewhere you could create more jobs. That’s possibly true, but in no way is that the same as saying that green jobs destroy jobs elsewhere. It’s an investment, and the study admits that it may pay off in the long term, which is exactly my point – it is expensive, but it pays off in the longer term.

    1. Here we go again: “trotted out a series of predictable and hackneyed objections”. How you love your insults, Jeremy. Look, what we’re discussing here is whether or not your proposals will achieve anything. I really don’t want to go over it all yet again – so go back and review the clear evidence (yes abundant evidence) I produced showing that reduction in the UK’s small share of global emissions will make no difference to the global picture and showing that the developing economies are racing ahead with their exploitation of fossil fuels. Whatever their words, they plainly don’t really care, nor do the hundreds of millions of people who are benefiting from their policies. Moreover, it’s clear they’re not interested in whatever we may do – except perhaps to the extent that our higher energy costs enable them to take over more of our industries. Here are three relevant issues referred to above:

      1. Where our businesses are big energy users, not only are jobs destroyed but they are commonly exported to the developing world along with the emissions we “save”.

      2. But it’s usually worse even than that: manufacture in the developing world is typically “dirtier” (largely depending on coal) and less environmentally friendly than it is here – so global emissions, pollution and harm to people are increased as a direct result of our policy.

      3. In particular, most of the jobs created in the manufacture of renewables (windmill, solar panel and electric vehicle components) are carried out in the developing world – in “dirty” (typically coal burning) factories. And it’s especially damaging as it involves the environmentally ghastly mining and processing of rare earth metals.

      Where is the sense in taking action that exports jobs, increases emissions and subjects many thousands of people in the developing economies to environmental hazard? (And please don’t deploy your sad tactic of avoiding the question by huffing about hackneyed etc. objections.)

        1. Once again, you’re ignoring my central point – that you can’t generalise across the whole green jobs sector across the UK off the back of one paper from a Spanish university which isn’t even about Britain’s renewable sector. I’m not an expert and I don’t care to pass judgement on the paper, although as I say it can’t point to a single job was actually destroyed by renewable energy.

          You’re also getting hung up on renewable energy, which is not the beginning and end of green jobs. One of the green jobs projects I’ve called for locally is to follow the example of some more enlightened British councils and provide free insulation to anyone that wants it. It creates low-skill jobs and benefits the poorest in society and those living with energy poverty. To tar those kinds of projects with the same brush as big renewable energy subsidies and dismiss them together is ridiculous.

      1. I’m afraid you’ve ignored half my points. I’ve said repeatedly that no, us dealing with our own emissions doesn’t make a significant impact, but I’ve explained why we do it anyway.

        Big business uses energy, sure. Can you give me any evidence that the rising price of energy in the UK is driving business abroad? Bear in mind that energy prices here are generally cheaper than the rest of Europe, with gas prices at almost half the EU average.

        As for point three, if we were supporting our renewables market properly, those jobs wouldn’t be going to other countries. Remember the Vestas debacle, where Britain’s only large scale wind turbine manufacturer left the country in large part because it’s so difficult to get planning permission for wind farms here.

        I’ve given you plenty of detailed replies. You’re ignoring them and repeating yourself, and forcing me to do the same.

  11. Jeremy: once again I’m going to be away from my computer – this time until next week. Therefore, although I’m sure you’re planning to answer the above (I don’t imagine for a moment that I’ve persuaded you), I suggest we bring this to a close – in any case, as you have indicated, it’s beginning to get a bit repetitive.

    But I’ll close by thanking you for your hospitality in hosting this interesting exchange. I’ve learned something and I suspect you may have done so also. It’s good that there are blogs where people with widely differing views can debate issues without rancour and the usual ad hominem attacks. Thanks.

  12. Thank you Jeremy and Robin for producing the best, most civilized, exchange on the topic of CO2-induced climate change that I’ve seen to date. Unfortunately, it would seem that the failure of most “developed” countries, especially those in North America, to comply with the Kyoto Accord has condemned my grandchildren to live in world of increasingly severe weather events, rising sea levels, and global population disruption. A grim outlook indeed.

    Best regards,

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