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Acknowledging the scale and urgency of the challenge we face

What is the role of innovation in helping to meet the carbon reduction targets we are committed to?

When it comes to climate change and energy we concern ourselves with the wrong issues and the wrong timescales. Nuclear power, CCS and shale gas fracking hog the headlines when in reality we need to get to grips with the problem from the other side, the demand side. Keeping to our 2ºC commitments, and any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change beyond, obliges us to prioritise efficiency and conservation.

It’s quite clear from Tyndall Centre research that orthodox climate policy will fall far short of achieving orthodox climate targets. A robust, quantitative assessment of our predicament suggests that urgent and radical reductions in emissions from developed nations are required now and throughout the coming decade, with substantial action from the rest of the world very soon after. This questions the pre-eminence of supply side technology and infrastructure in our plans and discourses.

The most significant greenhouse gases are long lived so emissions added up over the short term will continue to cause climate change for decades and centuries to come. End point targets for reductions, such as the UK’s headline figure of 80% by 2050, miss the cumulative nature of the problem and dangerously mislead us on the appropriate course of action.

Under the Copenhagen Accord (2009) we have committed to “…hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity”. If we account for global emissions to date and allow for limited growth in emissions from developing nations, then urgent and deep reductions in the UK and other OECD economies are required to keep cumulative carbon budgets within “safe” limits.

To achieve this, the UK needs to have a zero carbon energy system by 2025 to 2030, including all heating, surface and air transport, with substantial progress in the next decade. There is simply insufficient time for supply side infrastructure to achieve such a change alone. We need to tackle head-on the real-world implications of these science and equity concerns by urgently addressing UK energy use and energy demand in the first instance.

Indeed, this will be necessary to enable the supply side to cope with the challenge of decarbonisation. Diffuse sources of pollution such as road transport and domestic and commercial space heating are difficult to mitigate without connection to the electricity supply. However, were this to be done with energy demand at its present scale, the national grid would have to distribute more than four times the energy it does currently. And this is assuming, of course, that “business as usual” trends in efficiency keep pace with economic growth. As a result, not only would electrical generation from low carbon sources demand infrastructure on a massive scale, but transmission infrastructure would similarly require considerable investment.

Innovation in policy, economics and technology that reduces our demand for energy is therefore an urgent priority. New vehicle and domestic appliance efficiency standards present an immediate route to drive such a transformation. The promise of smart grids is to reverse the orthodox view that supply should be driven by demand. By matching demand to more intermittent supply we can enable new sources of energy, reduce infrastructure investment, balance peak loads, and exploit the different sources of inertia in our energy system, whilst maintaining the services that energy delivers. However, such integration has not yet been demonstrated on a community or regional, let alone national scale. Many of these actions could be performed without new infrastructure, for instance simple habits of putting the laundry or dishwasher on over-night rather than in the evening peak would begin to achieve some of the same effects. Pioneers may even wish to follow the UK grid carbon output in real time online.

There are great opportunities for the UK to develop new ways of living within a new era of energy literacy that goes beyond a superficial engagement with commodity prices. Fuel poverty is well recognised and quality of life may be improved for many by a more vigorous engagement with domestic energy use and infrastructure. We should also recast energy security as a matter of security of services, such as heating and lighting, rather than the security of supply of commodities. Getting past the non-economic barriers that inhibit us from improving our homes would insulate us from geopolitical concerns as much as from cold winter nights.

Finally, there is another important conclusion to be drawn. A quantitative framing of climate policy raises questions of the compatibility of meaningful decarbonisation with GDP growth in already rich economies; “green growth” cannot be assumed if we are to reduce emissions by at least 7% per annum. Orthodox climate scenarios, such as developed by the Stern Review or the Committee on Climate Change, constrain rates of reduction to the order of 3% to 4% per annum on the basis that these would be consistent with continued economic growth. However, such policy will most likely lead us towards average warming of 3ºC to 5ºC with potentially devastating regional impacts. This would seem foolhardy given the mounting evidence that the impacts of even 2ºC warming will be worse than first anticipated.

Whilst growth in abstract market value remains the pre-eminent measure of our prosperity and central priority of government we will continually overlook and dismiss policies, investments and actions that could contribute to a better standard of living that is compatible with a stable climate. We need to think seriously about how to structure a progressive economy that does not continually depend upon ever greater consumption for social stability and political legitimacy. Innovation is a pre-requisite of any sustainable future, but this innovation is much less about technology and much more about recasting economics around long term social well-being rather than short term financial gain. Leaders in business, community and public sector organisations need to acknowledge the scale and urgency of the challenge we face and articulate it as such.

Dr John Broderick is knowledge transfer fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester.