When it comes to heat energy, Britain's emissions are not falling

Shadow energy minister: Britain's not as clean as it thinks

Wind and solar energy programmes are set to decline—and the government reckons this is progress
November 14, 2018

There are two loud noises currently being heard in the debate around greening the energy economy. One is a raucous procession of claims from the government about just how well we are doing in greening our energy mix, and how we are set to continue that progress over the next decade. The other is a series of increasingly testy reports from the Committee on Climate Change.

Most recently, the Climate Change Committee produced a striking graphic in its 2018 report to parliament: 75 per cent of emissions reductions since 2012 have come from the power sector: all other sectors remain flat in emission levels, including that of heat—a far larger component of energy emissions. The government counters: we have reduced our emissions by 43 per cent since 1990, and with the publication of the Clean Growth Plan will be about 95 per cent of the way to meeting the terms of the fifth carbon budget. 

Who is right in all this? It depends to some extent in what direction you measure achievement. The UK has had some success in decarbonising power, and the overall reduction in emissions since 1990 looks impressive: but when we come to the big questions about how we approach the next and crucial stages of decarbonising energy to play a dominant role in realising our carbon budgets, the locker looks very bare. 

We have made great strides in off-shore wind and we will continue to do so and the likelihood is that off-shore wind will double by the end of the 2020s. But at the same time, cheaper and more extensively deployed onshore wind is set to dwindle as support is withdrawn and a ban on deployment in England and Wales takes hold. There is also more solar deployed in volume than offshore wind, but a similar withdrawal of support will see new capacity grind to an almost complete standstill over the next few years.

Other forms of renewable power such as tidal have suffered a crushing blow recently with the failure of the government to back the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, set to be the precursor of a range of lagoons able to provide perhaps 6 per cent of our power needs over the next 50 years.  

Measures to stimulate new renewable heating systems run out in 2020, and the government’s programme to decarbonise heat through home insulation has halved since 2013. Coal is likely to come off the system by 2025, but longer term programmes to capture carbon outputs from remaining fossil fuel-powered stations and from energy intensive industries through carbon capture and storage have suffered.

In 2016, government cancelled two carbon capture and storage projects worth a billion pounds. These were replaced by development programmes worth only a tenth of that amount.

In short, the government’s elision of progress in the past with inevitable progress in the future smacks of complacency. We are going to have to try much harder to reach those targets: probably something like 85 per cent of power, and 40 per cent of heat for energy will need to come from renewable and low-carbon sources to meet the fifth carbon budget: which is why Labour is planning for target of 60 per cent of all energy to arise from renewable and low carbon sources by 2032.

That is the scale of what we have to do: and looking fondly back on past triumphs won’t crack it.