Friday, September 14, 2012

DECC "pleased with progress" towards climate change targets says chief civil servant

Phil Wynn Owen, Director General of DECC's International Climate Change and Energy Efficiency group
Welshman Phil Wynn Owen, Director General of DECC's International Climate Change and Energy Efficiency group.

The British Government is pleased with its progress towards meeting its climate change targets and in steering the European Union and the United Nations climate talks in a satisfactory direction, according to a senior official within the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Speaking exclusively to me at The Energy Event at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre yesterday, the official said that, given the long timescales involved, DECC is happy with progress so far.

Phil Wynn Owen is Director General of the International Climate Change and Energy Efficiency group. Before that, he was an official in the Treasury. His remarks, paraphrased below, give an insight into thinking within senior levels of government.

UN discussions

The top-level Conference of the Parties (COP) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks, designed to reach global agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, happen at the end of each year. At the last of these talks in Durban, it was agreed that nations would put in place by the end of 2015 a binding legal agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions that will take effect in 2020.

The UK government was pleased and surprised by this outcome, given the pessimism that preceded these talks.

In between these annual talks are interim negotiations. UK officials were disappointed by the progress made at the last of these, which took place in Bonn earlier this year and ended without agreement. They therefore led calls, together with Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC, for a further meeting, which happened in Bangkok at the end of August and beginning of September.

Whereas outside reports expressed dismay at the lack of progress made there, too, DECC officials believe that significant progress was made, laying the groundwork for a legal agreement.

There was also good progress in negotiating a successor framework to the Kyoto Protocol.

DECC had a large team negotiating in Bangkok, who played a significant part in the production of the first draft of a full negotiating text. This will be discussed at the next Conference of the Parties (COP 18) in Doha, Qatar in late November this year.

The UK Government believes it is very important that these forthcoming talks will take place in the heart of the oil-producing Gulf states.

Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker told an All Party Parliamentary Group meeting at the House of Commons on Monday that he feels the talks “offer a unique opportunity to encourage the major oil and gas producing states to recognise the benefits of signing up to a low carbon agenda".

DECC is thinking particularly about Saudi Arabia, which has recently announced a huge commitment to solar power. At previous COP negotiations its team has resorted to blocking and delaying tactics and watering down mitigation targets. DECC believes that this November's talks offer an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to see the benefits of behaving otherwise.

The long view

The senior DECC official turned to the disparity between Government and business attitudes towards the low carbon agenda, the latter of which on the whole are enthusiastic, since the sector is one of the few areas of the economy which is experiencing significant growth.

Here, with the longsighted vision of a long-serving civil servant, Mr Owen paid tribute to the manner in which the UK Government conducts its consultations and discussions on developing its energy policies.

While recognising that some sectors would like government to move faster, most appreciated that, with resources tight due to the ongoing recession, it was necessary to have a debate which took in the views of all sides on the most cost-effective way to decarbonise the country and adapt to climate change.

Dominant thinking is now that the greatest opportunities lie in cutting energy use, reducing demand, and energy efficiency.

The beginning of Mr Owen's presentation to delegates yesterday morning was taken up with extremely depressing figures about the rate of increase of climate-warming emissions and their likely effects on overall average global temperatures.

At present trends, the world is headed for at least 3°C warming, which will create a “very high risk of economic impact", he said.

By 2020 there is likely to be an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide greater than 550 ppm, which means that after that year emissions will need to reduce by up to 2.5% per year, a daunting prospect.

DECC is still very aware of the recommendations of the 2007 Stern Review, which said that early action to tackle climate change would be much cheaper than waiting and taking action later. Mr Owen reported that its author, Nicholas Stern, is “very pessimistic" these days.

He, however, remains optimistic. Turning around the behaviour of a whole country, let alone the whole world, is bound to take far longer than turning around the behaviour of any single company, no matter how large.

Moreover, companies have a completely different command structure to government and nations, unless they are totalitarian and can therefore act more quickly. This explains the long timescale required.

Mr Owen said that the measures contained in the Green Deal, the introduction of 53 million smart meters by 2019 in 30 million properties, and the Renewable Heat Incentive, which will increase the proportion of renewable heat from the current 1% to 12% by 2020, all give grounds for optimism.

Within the proposed Electricity Market Reforms, the capacity mechanism, the carbon price floor, and contracts for difference, will all help to leverage the £110 billion of investment required by 2020 to decarbonise the energy infrastructure.

He backed Ed Davey's defence of these measures, published yesterday, saying that they will create at least a quarter of a million jobs.

Moreover, energy intensive users will be compensated for the effects of the measures on their energy bills.

Mr Owen added that DECC is still lobbying within the European Union for it to commit to a 30% target for reducing emissions by 2020.

Mr Owen is clearly proud of his department's achievements; that it, and therefore the UK as a whole, is playing a vitally important role in steering the whole world away from completely disastrous climate change.

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