Energy vacuum


Bryony Worthington on David Cameron’s moral failure on climate change

The problem with David Cameron’s defence for not setting a decarbonisation target for the power sector, when he gave evidence to the Liaison Committee last week, is that it shows a complete failure to grasp the moral importance of showing leadership on climate change. 

As the home of the industrial revolution that unwittingly gave us climate change, the UK is now morally obliged to deliver a new industrial revolution – proving to the world that the achievement of deep cuts in emissions is compatible with continued economic prosperity. Decarbonising the power sector is the first and easiest step since there are many existing forms of low to zero carbon power. 

In order for fossil fuels to play a part in the next energy revolution they need to be used in a way that does not release greenhouse gases into the environment. This is not rocket science. All the elements of commercial scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) system, where gases are buried and kept underground, have been independently proven to work. They now need to be joined up and deployed at scale. We have known this for a long time and both the current government and the previous Labour one have had plans to fund the first demonstration project. 

Sadly however, the policy is in disarray with still no clarity regarding if, when and where the first project will be built. A recent decision to rule out the leading CCS project in Europe from a competition for UK funding implies that we are simply not serious about wanting to make it work. 

The lack of progess is largely because there isn’t a sufficiently strong commercial signal that CCS is going to be necessary and so its successful development is reliant on civil servants, not industrialists. Given a firm target to meet, the power sector has shown itself adept at finding solutions. Tough emissions standards, designed to address acid rain, delivered sulphur dioxide scrubbers at a much lower cost than first estimated. Air quality standards are soon set to be tightened further and once again industry has found a workaround, with new cheaper NOx (Nitrogen Oxide) scrubbers being trialled that would give old coal yet another lease of life. 

If this teaches us anything it is that, faced with a strong legal imperative, industry can adapt and will likely demonstrate economic efficiencies unimagined by policy makers. 

So Mr Cameron’s insistence that we cannot set decarbonisation targets until CCS is proven is as illogical as it is immoral. Set the targets and CCS will be made a priority by the companies currently making handsome profits from the extraction and use of fossil fuels. They can afford to make it a reality if they choose – and we must insist that they do. Implying that there is an alternative where they can carry on with business as usual, while our carbon ambitions are abandoned, simply clips the wings of any fledgling interest in the technology.

It is time the Prime Minister faced up to the reality that we cannot continue to benefit from fossil fuels without paying for their external impacts. This applies to gas just as much as it does to coal and oil. Set the target, create the right incentives and the market will deliver. This is the certainty industry needs. And if Mr Cameron wants any confirmation of this, all he needs to do is widen the circle of those he listens to – and he will also hear it repeated by a broad range of companies.

The Energy Bill receives its Second Reading in the Commons on Wednesday, when I suspect decarbonisation targets will receive a great deal of attention. Let us hope Parliament can provide the moral leadership on this issue that the Prime Minister so clearly lacks. 

Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister in the Lords

Published 18th December 2012

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