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Carbon dioxide, pollution and energy policy

A report this week from Carbon Brief website gives a very rosy view of the UK’s emissions reduction policy. On the BBC website we see that coal collapse drives down UK carbon emissions, while in the Times, the identical message is presented under the headline ditching coal helps Britain beat climate change target. The FT emphasises that UK carbon emissions fall to late-19th century levels. There are more serious aspects to consider, but I can’t avoid noting the increasingly common use of the term ‘carbon emissions’, giving a somewhat inaccurate picture of clouds of soot rather than invisible, odourless carbon dioxide. But enough quibbling.

None of the headlines are untrue, but perhaps they don’t give the whole picture. First, what has actually happened to coal consumption? To quote from the FT piece “Consumption of coal sank by a record 52 per cent in 2016 from the previous year as use of the fuel was pummelled by cheaper gas, higher domestic carbon prices, the spread of renewables and other environmental policies. Coal has been a bedrock of UK power supply for more than 150 years and accounted for 23 per cent of the electricity mix as recently as two years ago.”

Last year, according to the report, the share was 9% and for the first time was less than that contributed by wind farms. This is the first point that hides the whole truth behind a fact. Wind may indeed have contributed more electricity over the year, but only at times when the conditions were right, while all the output of coal-fired stations is despatchable, that is on tap to meet demand. In practice, the lost output from coal was made up primarily from increased use of gas. To reinforce the inability of wind farms to guarantee energy security, no matter how many of them are built, the Times reports that the contribution of wind fell slightly to 11.5% “despite more than 340 turbines being built onshore”.

Our second reality check comes with the contribution that the reduction in coal burning has made to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the self-imposed targets in the Climate Change Act. As the BBC reports: “Carbon emissions in 2016 reached 381 millions of tonnes (Mt) of CO2. With the exception of sharp dips caused by general strikes in the 1920s, this represents the lowest level since 1894, when Nicholas II became Tsar of Russia.”

A somewhat more nuanced picture emerges in the Times report. Although the headline figure from Carbon Brief is that CO2 emissions had fallen by 42% last year (relative to the 1990 baseline), compared with a target of 35% by 2020, last year’s report from the Committee on Climate Change had said that the UK was not on track to meet the rather more demanding target of a 50% cut by 2025. A big drop in recent years does not necessarily mean such progress can be sustained.

In fact, the Times article also reports that “The UK cut CO2 emissions faster than Germany, Italy, France and Spain between 1990 and 2014 and did slightly better than the EU average.” It’s worth looking at that statement a bit more closely. Germany is arguably the EU member state most committed to reducing emissions, via its much trumpeted energiewende. The country has the greatest nominal wind and solar generating capacity in Europe (49.6 and 40.9GW respectively), compared to 15.6 and 8.6GW of wind and solar capacity in the UK. This is more than its current demand of about 73GW as I write this. The UK, on the other hand has rather less, but a still substantial 60% of current demand (peak demand in both countries will come in the evening).

Germany’s enormous investment in wind and solar energy has not helped it perform as well as the UK in terms of measurable emissions reduction. European Commission figures for 2015 show per capita CO2 emissions in the two countries as 9.6 and 6.2 tonnes respectively. As for France, its comparative emissions figure was 5.1 tonnes, due in no small part to the high level of nuclear generating capacity. It is not surprising that the country had made less progress, considering its lower baseline. This is also a salutary reminder that electricity generation is simply the most obvious and most easily controlled energy sector. Heating and transport together form the greater part of total energy use, and reducing emissions for these sectors will be far harder.

Despite this, the Times leader writer this week wrote a rather breathless piece headlined A Cleaner Future. To quote “Most of this reduction is the result of a 52 per cent cut in a single year in the use of coal, which, like diesel, fouls the air with sooty particulates when burned. This should have an immediate and positive impact on illness and premature death from respiratory disease, but cutting carbon emissions so fast has global implications too. If bigger polluters can follow suit, policymakers will be able to start thinking about reversing the build-up of atmospheric carbon not just as an idea but as a realistic possibility.”

You see my point. There is no understanding of how flue gases are cleaned up before they leave the smoke stack and there is little nuance in the lumping of the supposed problem in with diesel engines, the current versions of which produce no more fine particles than do petrol engines. But the biggest problem is the assumption that what has happened in the UK in the last few years represents an example that can be easily followed by the rest of the world. Each country’s situation is different and even a more enthusiastic use of the same approach – the case of Germany – has not borne fruit.

Carbon Brief and other sources are presenting a picture with a certain spin and hoping that politicians and opinion formers take the bait in the way that the Times leader writer quite clearly did. In so doing, the argument goes, the political momentum towards ever-greater emissions cuts will be unstoppable.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The momentum has certainly built, but the effort needs to pay dividends or those bearing the cost (consumers and taxpayers) will begin to question policies. Even a seemingly unstoppable momentum can be reversed if there is a big enough reaction to it. In the absence of technologies that are capable of delivering the vision, that reaction may not be too long in coming, especially if enough people take note of what is happening across the Atlantic.