Carbon Reduction- Delivering a Low Carbon Future

Published on Monday, 28 June 2010 01:00
Written by Professor Jim Skea OBE

 In an exclusive interview with GovToday, Professor Jim Skea OBE, Research Director at UKERC, discusses the progress needed to deliver a Low Carbon Transition Plan

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) is a collaboration of half a dozen universities around the UK and we undertake research relevant to the energy system as a whole.


I am both Research Director at the UKERC and a founder member of the Committee on Climate Change. There is quite a lot of synergy between these two roles; much of the evidence that comes up from university-based research is fed into the Committee’s deliberations. My position on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change completes a triangle of intersecting roles.

The UKERC is a member of the G8 Low Carbon Society Research Network, and represents the UK on EERA - the European Energy Research Alliance. With European Union research and development (R&D;) money being deployed in an increasingly directed manner, we need an organisation to represent the UK and enable a wide range of UK players to obtain their fair share of European initiatives.

In the UK, we currently have a ‘Trinity’ of low carbon energy generating options available for development - renewables, nuclear and clean coal - although there are obviously uncertainties about each of them. In order to succeed, we must hedge our bets and press ahead in all three areas.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), in particular, is very promising, but it has not yet been demonstrated either technically or economically.

With regards to UK progress on R&D; and technology, the volume of energy-related research and development and demonstration (RD&D;) simply collapsed after the privatisation of the utilities in the early 1990s. It fell to an extremely low level and was certainly not sustainable in the sense that we were not laying down the options for the future during the 1990s and the first part of this last decade.

However, R&D; volume is now rising again, with both the public and private sectors investing more into energy R&D; although ideally we should have started earlier if we were to really open up the necessary options.

As well as the research councils targeting the most basic end of the research, we also have three public bodies investing in energy RD&D;: the Carbon Trust, the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). And one of the main challenges now is the co-ordination of activities in order to ensure that we are spending in the most effective way.

The ETI was established to undertake the research necessary to deliver engineering solutions. ETI is a public/private partnership, so the private sector plays a very important part in this.

The roles of the ETI and UKERC are complementary. For example, ETI has sought to sponsor a case studentship at UKERC, and we have played a role in developing the modelling capabilities necessary to examine options for R&D; in the future. A member of UKERC is sitting on the advisory group for the modelling activity.

Much is happening at the moment; last year’s ‘Low Carbon Transition Plan’ set out a good framework for moving forward. CCS development is critically dependent on getting the demonstration projects up and running. The UK is moving ahead faster than many other countries, with plans for up to four demonstrators. The support from non-governmental organisations for CCS is greater in the UK than in other countries, partly because the UK can store the carbon under the North Sea rather than underground on land .

It is vital to monitor the storage side for the whole life of the demonstration projects to ensure that nothing unexpected is happening. We are quite aware at the moment that things can happen under the sea, pipes can burst etc, so this needs to be examined and addressed.

Looking ahead to the period up to 2020/2030, much of the technology that will emerge in the long term will not require new development but it is a question of refining that technology with applied research demonstration activities.

However, towards the end of the 21st century and the really ambitious emission reduction targets of 80 per cent greenhouse gas emissions, then fundamental basic science still has a role to play in creating options to be exploited in the longer term.

So, for example, with solar energy the standard crystalline silicon cell is well established. It is expensive but it is technology that we can use. In the longer term, bringing the costs of photovoltaics down substantially would ensure that this could play a larger role in the future - and that is where the more basic R&D; is required.

We need to get on a pathway towards that 80 per cent reduction and set mid-term targets that take things forward. That is the idea behind the Climate Change Act Framework - at the end of this year, the Committee on Climate Change will have to produce a recommendation on the UK’s fourth carbon budget, which will take us out to 2027. That is halfway towards 2050; we need to be well on the way by that point if we are going to reach the 80 per cent target.

Moving forward, in terms of driving progress, it is not the carrot or stick, choose one or the other approach that is required, the proper policy mix is going to contain a part of both.

For example, the feed-in tariffs just introduced for photovoltaics in the home, are clear examples of where the carrot approach will help considerably. In other areas, for example on energy efficiency, tariffs would also certainly help, but we will have to become more interventionist in terms of energy efficiency in the home.

In the next decade, we will have insulated cavity walls, lofts etc and we then need to move on to the more difficult aspects, such as solid wall insulation. At this point, there may need to be a more regulatory approach - the point at which houses are bought and sold is perhaps the best intervention point.

Regarding the cost of implementing this, there appears to be clear political consensus that the easiest way is to put the cost on to electricity and gas consumers and spread that across the whole consumer base. My personal view is that we have not given enough emphasis to the energy efficiency side i.e., where the more cost-effective options are available for getting carbon dioxide emissions down.

Financing our low carbon society remains a challenge, but particularly when there is policy uncertainty. Any uncertainty about the policy framework in which people operate tends to scare the horses in terms of investment. Establishing clarity and stability as quickly as possible removes one barrier to required investment.

The other challenging aspect is gaining people’s social consent or buy-in moving. We will need to do things differently. Investing in products and practices in the home that we are perhaps less familiar with as we move to smart metering and more ambitious energy efficiency measures. Ensuring that there is a buy-in for all this will be absolutely critical.

There is a localism versus centralism debate in the broad governance of this whole energy and climate area. At the end of the last government, when the key policy themes were urgency and the scale of the challenge etc, many of the procedures that were put in place were quite centrally directed, for example the national policy statements, the Planning Act, the role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which may now be abolished.

This issue of how to maintain the scale and urgency of the agenda against the background of localism and people’s legitimate desire to control the way the local environment actually changes. This will be a challenge.

The key message is that we have set high levels of ambition, but if you look back at the last five years, the progress that we are beginning to make is still not enough to hit all the targets. We must put the foot on the accelerator. There is also a real need to sort out the public credibility of climate science in order to restore respect for science.

Professor Jim Skea OBE will be Chairing Govtoday’s Carbon Reduction 2010: Delivering A Low Carbon Future - A New Decade of Transformation Conference and Exhibition at Church House Westminster on the 29th June

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