Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Coalition's Carbon Plan is a rehash - what should it really say?

It certainly comes across as well-meaning and earnest. There are no less than 186 measures in the Excel spreadsheet accompanying The Carbon Plan launched jointly today by the leaders of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

But the Plan currently – it is a draft - is little more than a summary of already existing government policies. What it indicates is that the coalition is keen to regain the initiative after criticism that it is not meeting its promise to be the “greenest government ever".

Critics will be asking why, if the government wants to get us onto public transport, are so many bus services being cut across the country?

They will say, why are the revenues from the Carbon Reduction Commitment, and the forthcoming climate change levy (CCL) on all fossil fuels used in electricity generation, instead of being ploughed directly into low carbon activities, to go to the Treasury to fill the budget deficit?

Much of the commentary in the Plan will be familiar to long-term observers of government attempts to reduce the nation's environmental impact. One must ask: if governments have failed before, what are the real impediments to progress that this one must overcome in order to succeed? How can future drafts improve on this one?

Undoubtedly the Plan's signatories, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, need to lean on the Treasury. Its mandarins have been opposing Huhne's attempts to set up the Green Investment Bank as a proper bank.

They appear to have failed in this - it will be launched next year - but they have recently succeeded in blocking a source of finance for the bank by issuing green investment bonds for the public to buy. For the Treasury, such a solution is too messy - they prefer to stick with the big investors. And yet, if we could all invest in the green industrial revolution this would certainly galvanise a much greater proportion of the population.

Planning is another obstacle to be surmounted. The Carbon Plan acknowledges this by saying, for example “The Government is committed to reducing carbon emissions from new buildings through successive changes to The Building Regulations and to enabling new non-domestic buildings to be zero carbon from 2019."

But alongside this, it needs vigorously to retrain and motivate planning departments across the country to support low carbon designs, which all too often fall foul of petty objections. Furthermore, Building Controllers need to be retrained and motivated to properly police implementation of the environmental aspects of the Building Regulations and, if necessary prosecute offenders with the same rigour as is applied to Health and Safety breaches. No one has ever yet been prosecuted for a breach of Part L.

The use of passive solar architecture for heating and cooling of buildings has huge potential. The utilization of solar gain, and standards similar to the ‘Passivhaus’ standard, can help to curb the rate of growth in demand for electricity for these purposes.

Reducing demand is far more cost-effective than building new power stations. But if we are going to build new power stations, then "renewable energy technologies are the only ones to offer a reduction of price rather than an increase in the future" [Arnulf Jäger-Waldau, PV Status Report 2008, Renewable Energy Unit, European Commission].

So, in the long-term, we are undoubtedly shielding ourselves from future pricing insecurity by investing in renewable energy. The Government evades the criticism that politicians only make short-term decisions by acknowledging this.

What it needs to do however, is look more carefully at which technologies it should back - such as the extremely reliable and almost market-ready marine current turbines and anaerobic digestion.

For example, it wants us to “move away from gas boilers to low carbon alternatives, such as heat pumps". And yet in most cases replacing a gas boiler with a heat pump would not result in carbon savings. Has it looked at the carbon balance of this?

Why is it that yet again solar thermal heating hardly gets a mention? If the Government wants to get more carbon savings for its £££s it is far better spending its money on this than photovoltaics. A study [B. Croxford and K. Scott, Can PV or Solar Thermal Systems Be Cost Effective? London, 2008.] found that the costs of reducing overall carbon dioxide emissions using a solar photovoltaic roof are £196/tonne CO2, but for solar thermal individual systems are £65/tonne CO2 and for community solar thermal five times better at £38/tonne CO2.

The Plan is right to support distributed energy, whose benefits coincide with the ideology of the new Localism: local ownership, reduced transmission losses and greater efficiency. At too small a scale, however, the economy of scale is lost because of unnecessary duplication of system components such as inverters (house-by-house, instead of street-by-street).

Renewable energy and building refurbishment at village, street or town scale therefore have a part to play in community regeneration, as communities come together to take responsibility for their own energy consumption and learn what it means.

Consumers of energy also have a lot to learn about how their pattern of use affects overall demand, and how they can reduce their energy consumption. It is hoped as well that the rollout of the ‘smart grid’ can help to manage or smooth out peak loads and reduce overall requirements for generation capacity.

We are on a huge learning climb. The road to a low carbon future will be made up of a million incremental steps that we all must take. Undoubtedly there will be some trips along the way.

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