Energy policy in the UK looks like a jam factory hit by a meteorite: a multicoloured pool of gloop studded with broken glass. Consider these two press releases, issued by the British Department of Energy and Climate Change last week.
On Tuesday last week: The government’s new energy bill will help the UK to “move away from high carbon technologies.” On Wednesday last week: Applications for new oil and gas drilling in the North Sea have “broken all previous records.” This is “tremendous news for industry and for the UK economy.”
The government knows that these positions are irreconcilable. Natural gas is mainly used for producing electricity. The draft energy bill, launched last week, says that if the government’s legal obligation to cut 80 percent of greenhouse gases by 2050 is to be met, electricity plants “need to be largely decarbonized by the 2030s.” (This is a subtle slippage from last December’s Carbon Plan, which said 2030). The only hope of reconciliation lies in the universal deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS): technology that removes the carbon dioxide emanating from power stations and buries it. However, the government has made it clear that it does not believe this is going to happen.
The new bill sets a limit for the amount of carbon dioxide that power stations can produce. This is 450g of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt-hour of electricity. Compare it with the 50g that the Committee on Climate Change says should be the average produced by power stations in this country by the end of the 2020s, if the government is to meet its 2050 target.
Modern gas power stations produce less than 400g/kWh, so the new limit would not touch them. Worse, the level will be fixed — by primary legislation — until 2045 for power stations built today: In 33 years, gas plants will still be allowed to produce more carbon dioxide than they do at the moment. If the government believed that widespread CCS was a realistic prospect, it would ratchet down the emissions from gas plants, forcing them to use the technology. However, CCS of this kind has not yet been proven at scale, and is now beset with major problems. The government’s plans for cutting our contribution to global warming rely on vaporware.
As British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey said in March: “I want a decarbonized grid in the long term, but we can’t take our foot off the gas for some time yet.”
In this bill, we see the rupture of the cross-party consensus on climate change, and the abandonment of the carbon budgets required to meet the 2050 target.
However, at least the government’s emissions limit will prevent new coal plants being built without CCS. Won’t it? New coal plants produce about 800g/kWh, so they appear to be excluded by the 450g limit. This would be consistent with the promise in the coalition agreement: The rules “will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage to meet the emissions performance standard.” However, this promise has just been reclassified as biomass, and used to ignite British Prime Minister David Cameron’s pants.
The draft bill explains that any new coal plant that “forms part of” the capture and storage program will be exempted from the emissions standard. What it does not say is that a single gram of carbon dioxide needs to be captured from the plant in question. The bill makes this explicit. It defines a power station in the capture and storage program as one in which CCS “is or is to be ... used in commercial electricity generation.” To qualify under the bill, a coal plant would need only to plan on fitting, one day not very soon, some CCS capacity, the quantity of which is not specified. As well as the coalition agreement, this rips up the commitments in both last year’s white paper and the national policy statement.