Friday, April 22, 2016


Adrian Gault, Chief Economist at the Committee on Climate Change, addressed the BIEE’s regular energy and climate policy seminar this week. His presentation will be available to BIEE members on the BIEE website, and this note reflects both his presentation and some of the subsequent discussion at the meeting. (These meetings are held under the Chatham House Rule, with no attribution of opinions allowed. This comment however reflects both the meeting and this author’s personal observations on conclusions to be drawn from Adrian’s presentation and the subsequent discussion.)

Aim for temperatures well below 2oC above pre-industrial levels. Get to rapid reductions from peak as soon as possible. Try to lower risk with a 1.5oC. limit.

The December negotiations in Paris should be viewed as a success for international climate diplomacy. The level of ambition for effective action, and the aim of reducing the “2oC limit” to an even more challenging if aspirational 1.5oC was both surprising and encouraging.  The UK can claim that its current approaches are entirely compatible with Paris, but there will nevertheless be important challenges for the EU as a whole, for the UK in supporting key technologies such as carbon capture, and globally in ensuring adherence to the principles set down in Paris. This was an event that will interact with every aspect of our politics, from regulation and markets through to trade deals after a possible “Brexit”, for a very long time.

Paris 2015 was anticipated as a “make or break” event for concerted international action on climate, and should be viewed as a success, even if it fell short of the negotiated imposition of “top down” national climate targets that some were demanding. Instead it is a strategy based on national commitments, but with a process of monitoring, review and verification (MRV) that allows for a tightening of requirements (to reduce GHG) over time.

Given the difficulty of enforcing binding commitments in any case, this may well be a more robust strategy. The growing evidence of the risks posed by climate change, sharpened by this year’s record temperatures, will expose backsliders to a considerable volume of criticism, and will be hard to separate from other international negotiations, eg over trade. But there is no doubt that the tasks will be extremely challenging, even for countries like the UK which are relatively well equipped in institutional terms for the task in hand.

The CCC’s advice to the Secretary of State in January recognised that the Paris agreement was more demanding for the long term than current UK targets assume, but nevertheless that its earlier recommendations for the fifth carbon budget, covering 2028-2032, should be retained, although tighter budgets may be needed in the future. The measures underpinning this budget appear to be consistent with a cost effective approach to the 2050 target (the CCC’s formal remit) and also with more ambitious commitment by the EU in the light of Paris.

But it is clear that longer term targets will require this, and the UK’s overall strategy, to be kept under review. The UK government has already responded positively to the agreement by acknowledging the profound implications of Paris, promising "to take the step of enshrining the Paris commitment to net zero emissions in UK law".

A number of particular questions arise in this context, particularly for a number of the technologies required for cost-effective progress towards “zero carbon”.

·         Both CCC analysis and that of the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) has indicated the importance of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in providing a cost-effective route to a low carbon future. Unfortunately support for this was cancelled in November 2015, and will now need to be reconsidered.

·         Aiming for “zero carbon” requires some energy technology which is “carbon negative”. The only serious contender for this currently is bio-energy with carbon capture (BECCS), which was discussed in my earlier comment (20th April) on the benefits of wood burning at Drax. This could have been an early demonstration of BECCS.

·         Cost-effective low carbon scenarios also face some difficult choices in the heat sector, some of which are discussed under the DECARBONISING HEAT tab on this site. The CCC already recognise the heat sector as having potentially the slowest rate of reduction in carbon emissions.    

·         Pushing ahead faster on the transport sector is another priority.  This is a sector where considerable weight attaches to regulatory measures to encourage electric or other potentially low carbon technologies.

·         Consistency with current or revised EU targets in the context of the EU’s flagship emissions trading scheme

The discussion also reverted to the familiar debate on the relative merits of regulation and markets, and whether tighter targets might tilt the balance back towards regulation. In many respects this may be a false dichotomy, but the weight to be given to each instrument will be a continuing theme.

One participant referred to the “elephant in the room” – the possibility of a Leave result in the EU referendum, and its effect on the political landscape. The very strong correlation between “Leave” and opposition to climate focused policies[1] would imply very difficult times ahead, on both UK climate policies and on future trade negotiations, either with the EU or others. It would be hard to see the EU, or many countries outside the EU, accepting trade deals which exempted the UK from emissions policies to which they had themselves signed up.

[1] This blog. Anti-Europe and Anti-Science, 28th March 2016

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