UK political uncertainty undermining carbon targets – report

Vacillation over energy policy in the UK is threatening low carbon future set out in 2008 Climate Change Act

Pic: David Clarke/Flickr

Pic: David Clarke/Flickr

By Gerard Wynn

Political uncertainty risked derailing Britain’s low-carbon ambitions, says a major new report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), published on Wednesday.

The research body said it supported the decarbonisation of the nation’s power grid by 2030, piling pressure on the Coalition government which last year deferred supporting such a target.

UKERC is a publicly funded body which coordinates, funds and commissions British university energy research.

Their latest report concluded that energy objectives to achieve affordability and security of supply risked undermining the country’s third main energy target, to cut carbon emissions.

“In a challenging economic climate, UK energy futures have become more uncertain and contested,” the report found.

“Contrasting energy priorities are being articulated in public policy and in the private sector, exacerbated by controversies over energy prices and bills, shale gas development, onshore wind power and new nuclear power stations.”

Britain has set itself some of the world’s most challenging climate legislation.

Its 2008 Climate Change Act set a mandatory target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by the middle of the century, below 1990 levels.

In addition, the Act created a statutory government adviser, called the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), to propose interim, five-year carbon emissions budgets, and to review the government’s progress towards meeting these.

In the meantime, however, the senior Conservative Party partner in the Coalition Government has favoured domestic shale gas over the cheapest form of renewable power, onshore wind, citing energy affordability concerns.

“When it was passed (in 2008), the Climate Change Act received strong cross-party support. However, more recent rises in energy prices, the impact of the 2008 financial crisis and heightened concerns about energy security have challenged this consensus,” the UKERC report said.


The government’s vocal support for shale gas has raised the stakes in a crunch political decision, to be taken after the next election, over whether to limit sharply the future role of gas-fired power by setting a carbon intensity target for the country’s power generation.

Decarbonisation refers to a proposed target to slash carbon emissions per unit of power generation in 2030, to 50 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilowatt hour (kWh) of power generation, from 500 grams at present.

The UK’s CCC has recommended that Britain adopt such a target.

Wednesday’s UKERC study also supported the target, piling pressure on the Coalition government, which 12 months ago delayed a decision on whether to adopt such a target until after the next general election in 2015.

“Power sector decarbonisation by 2030 is essential if the UK’s emissions targets are to be met whilst minimising the costs of doing so.”

The report argued that it was possible to scale up the required investment in the energy sector, notwithstanding the massive increase required compared with the 2000s when a little over £1 billion was invested annually in power generation.

“Since 2009, investment has been scaling up significantly. Over the period 2009-2012, average capacity additions were 4 GW (gigawatts) per year, with average annual capital investment of £4.6bn. These are much closer to the estimates of investment needs to 2020 and 2030.”


The report acknowledged the need for government support such as credit guarantees, to meet the required investment levels.

The report said that political uncertainty would damage the prospects for carbon emissions cuts, by casting doubt over financial backing, as well as undermining the prospect for a decarbonisation target and engagement of the public.

“Political controversy about energy policy goals has the potential to compound some of the challenges,” it said.

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