Climate Change Committee

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Click here to read the reportThe UK is one of the least forested countries in Europe. Although the amount of woodland cover has increased substantially since its nadir after the First World War, growth has slackened in recent years. The growing maturity of UK woodlands means that carbon sequestration is falling rapidly. An independent assessment commissioned by the Forestry Commission has proposed one way forward: a million new hectares devoted to woodland, generating a reduction of up to 15% of the UK emissions in 2050.

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Image source: Aviation Enviroment Federation.

Image source: Aviation Enviroment Federation.

The UK government asked the wrong question. It demanded that the Committee on Climate Change calculated how much air travel can rise without causing an increase in aviation emissions. Not unsurprisingly, the CCC answered by saying that the number of trips could rise at the same rate as efficiency improvements in air travel. The Committee said that emissions per passenger will fall by about 1% a year, and so travel could rise by about this amount. No shocks there.

By 2050, the CCC opined, the number of passengers taking trips from UK airports can rise to 370 million a year, up from 230 million today. The maximum possible number of new passengers at Heathrow from the addition of new runway and sixth terminal is about 60 million. Hoorah, said the industry, there’s space for the expansion. Unsurprisingly, the press misinterpreted the Committee’s report and said that it had ‘approved’ the government’s plans for the airport. By answering the government’s disiningenous question, the CCC has lost some of its impartiality.

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Sizewell B

Until this week, we thought that Sizewell B was likely to be the most expensive nuclear power station built in the UK. Image source: World Nuclear Association.

The Guardian newspaper of Monday 19 October broke the story that the UK government is preparing to guarantee a minimum price for carbon dioxide emissions to encourage the development of nuclear power stations. Putting a high cost on greenhouse gas emissions from power stations will force up the wholesale price of electricity, ensuring a better financial return for nuclear power stations (and for renewables such as wind). The decision to create a floor price for carbon demonstrates that the full costs of nuclear technology are probably well above today’s wholesale electricity prices. We may well need nuclear power but we are going to pay heavily for it. The government’s optimistic noises from 2006 to the middle of this year about the commercial viability of nuclear power have turned out to be wrong.

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Image source: flourish.org.

Image source: flourish.org.

A study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency concluded that:

there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.[1]

Yes and no. What the study actually shows is that organic food typically does have higher levels of important nutrients but the high degree of variability in the measured levels means that we cannot be 95% sure that these higher levels are not the outcome of chance. The Food Standards Agency and the report’s authors have misled people interested in this topic and should revise the summaries of their work.

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Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

The government wants to emphasise the affordability of climate change mitigation. It produces low estimates of the cost of low-carbon technologies. In the recent 2009 budget documents, the government estimated a cost of 1% of GDP to meet the tough new 2020 targets. In his pronouncement on carbon capture at coal-fired power stations, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband later said that his proposals will add 2% to electricity bills.

Are these numbers reasonable? Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, says no. In a BBC interview of 26 April, he indicates that he thinks that the cost of reducing the UK’s emissions is much higher than the government indicates but also that the financial implications of not dealing with the climate change threat are far higher than even Nick Stern suggests.

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The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

E.ON’s £1bn plan for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is waiting for approval from the UK government. Other generators have shifted away from coal. Drax, which owns by far the largest coal power station in the UK, is investing in biomass. Other companies have focused on new gas plants. Why is the world’s largest investor-owned utility pushing ahead with a project to burn coal without carbon capture?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that burning coal to generate electricity is extremely profitable. Very low prices for emissions permits and tumbling coal costs mean that a profit-seeking management team is highly incentivised to try to push for permission to use coal in power stations. This article provides the background calculations for an estimate that the new Kingsnorth will generate an operating profit of about £300m a year if current fuel and carbon prices persist. Additionally, it also tries to show that the cost of fitting CCS equipment and running the plant to capture the large majority of all carbon emissions is likely to add no more than about 1.5p per kilowatt hour to the cost of generating electricity at current coal and carbon prices. This means that a new coal fired power station with CCS may have operating costs only marginally above gas power plants

Nevertheless, E.ON has just asked for government subsidy to install CCS at Kingsnorth from day one. The purpose of this article is to offer an estimate of the maximum the government ought to offer E.ON in order to get it to invest in CCS prior to opening the new power station.

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In today’s Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argue that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards ‘decarbonising’ electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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The Climate Change Committee (CCC) wrote in its December report that the world could expect about a 2 degree rise in temperature by 2100 if global emissions fell by about 50% by mid-century. It said that the risk of more than a 4 degrees rise is less than 1% if the world achieved this reduction. Because the UK has per capita emissions much higher than the global average, the Committee recommended that the country should cut its emissions by about 80%. This would eventually leave the UK’s emissions per head as about the same as the rest of the world.

The CCC report is thorough, robust and clear. But is its recommendation sufficiently prudent? In four main respects, the Committee has chosen a more optimistic conclusion than I believe is warranted. The implication is that its emissions reductions targets are not severe enough.

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