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  1. Spotlight on Policy
1 December 2017updated 19 Dec 2017 11:30am

Alan Whitehead: the UK is “playing catch-up” on climate change

Alan Whitehead, shadow minister of state for energy and climate change, discusses the urgency surrounding decarbonisation.  

By Rohan Banerjee

While Alan Whitehead welcomes the government’s Clean Growth Strategy (CGS), which sets ambitious decarbonisation targets and aims to protect energy-intensive industries, he says it has taken an “unconscionably long time” to release. This means that the United Kingdom is “still playing catch-up when it comes to the fourth and fifth carbon budgets.”

The CGS, published in October – almost a year later than initially planned – is replete with positive language. The Prime Minister writes in her foreword of the 165-page document: “Clean growth is not an option, but a duty we owe to the next generation, and economic growth has to go hand-in-hand with greater protection for our forests and beaches, clean air and places of outstanding natural beauty.” Whitehead suggests that this is really a smokescreen for the harsh realities of the strategy’s delay. “The point is that it doesn’t get us where we need to go. There’s a question mark still hanging around the government’s level of commitment.”

The CGS is meant to legislate for the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, spanning 2023-27 and 2028-32, by which the UK must cut its greenhouse gas emissions to below 57 per cent of 1990 levels. These were set out by the 2008 Climate Change Act and are staging posts towards a long-term goal of cutting emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Whitehead warns that the CGS is at a “clear risk of overshooting” on “what it was actually meant to achieve in the first place. It’s fallen short of the expectations of the Committee on Climate Change [the independent, non-departmental public body set up in 2008] and while it’s encouraging to see that the government wants to address these issues, it’s not very clear on exactly how it intends to do that. It looks like we’re going to be over-emitting by six per cent on the fourth carbon budget and by nine per cent on the fifth. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot but it does mean that on present policies, we’ll be leaving out huge amounts of carbon in the atmosphere which will need to be abated more steeply in future budgets.” 

Whitehead says that the merits of the CGS actually partly lie in “undoing the work of the previous Conservative government”. He considered the last government’s “effective outlawing of onshore wind and the attack on solar deployment” to be “a series of retrograde steps on carbon reduction following the scrapping of carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects”. And the Member of Parliament for Southampton Test notes that spending, rather than cutting, on green issues, is a sea change from the aims of former Prime Minister David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne, who were privately reported to have targeted the diminishment of “green crap” in the UK’s budget.

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To this effect, Osborne’s decision to deny Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) tax breaks to companies benefiting from the renewables obligation certificate (ROC) or renewable heat incentive (RHI) meant that investment in renewables quickly became a less attractive prospect. Under the current Tory government, Whitehead admits, energy policy “seems to be taken more seriously” but still needs work, specifically on how it delivers low-carbon heat.The government has been slow in looking at alternatives to natural gas and Whitehead personally favours a strategy with CCS at its core. “Carbon storage is central to taking us away from a reliance on baseload and huge redundancies in the system. The heat sector has woefully underperformed in terms of emissions reductions. The targets for the early 2020s are indicative. The conventional wisdom is to solve problems by electrifying everything. Eventually, you might envisage pulling out lots of boilers and replacing them with ground source and air source heat pumps, and other forms of electric heating. But if you were to do that, it would be unbelievably costly and the effect on the electricity system would be immense.”

CCS technology, Whitehead explains, can capture “up to 90 per cent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions” produced from the use of fossil fuels in industrial processes, stopping it from entering the atmosphere. He suggests that the Labour Party’s preferred route to heat decarbonisation would include “medium-term injection of green gases such as biomethane”, with a longer term shift planned towards a full hydrogen supply. This would complement an expansion of district heating schemes in more densely populated areas, such as Whitehead’s own constituency. 

CCS with renewable biomass, Whitehead says, is one of the few carbon abatement technologies that can be used in a “carbon-negative” mode – actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The CCS chain consists of three stages: capturing the CO2, transporting it and safely storing it underground in depleted oil and gas fields. 

CCS, Whitehead says, will be “vital in keeping energy-intensive industries afloat.” He adds: “It’s a turnkey that’s essential – a lot of other stuff won’t happen if you haven’t got it in place. It’s not just for power generation – capturing and storing carbon outputs – but when you get into the 2030s then carbon-intensive industries won’t be sustainable without it.” Why not? “The world needs increasing energy supplies to sustain its economic growth. But energy resources are under pressure and CO2 emissions from our current energy consumption already threaten our climate.” 

CCS, Whitehead also points out, could mean that CO2 is used as a raw material itself. “Converting captured CO2 into other products might even be viable.” CO2Chem, which is an arm of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, aims to help realise the potential of science that is 20-40 years away. Its recent research suggests that CO2 could be used directly in chemical reactions such as cyclic polymers. 

Whitehead’s enthusiasm for CCS does not appear to be matched by the incumbent. The Clean Growth Strategy does commit £100m to CCS, but that is just 10 per cent of the £1bn CCS scheme that was promised, and scrapped, by the previous Tory government in 2015. Whitehead states that the new £100m allocation is “frankly not enough”. 

While CCS may pose a number of benefits to the energy sector, its opponents – including Greenpeace – warn that it shouldn’t be viewed as a silver bullet, or distract from the importance to ramp up investment in existing renewable schemes. Confronted with the costs of a mass roll-out of CCS, Whitehead acknowledges that additional funds would ultimately have to come from the Treasury, but countered that making energy efficiency an infrastructure priority would help to deliver wider net economic benefits, such as safeguarding the jobs of people working in energy-intensive industries. Whitehead says that CCS isn’t meant to replace renewables investment, but rather accompany it. “It’s meant to be in addition to, not instead of.” 

Given that much of the debate surrounding energy and climate change takes place within an international context – emissions targets are global – Whitehead recognises that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union complicates matters. “Brexit makes things interesting,” he says; but Green Party MEPs Keith Taylor and Molly Scott Cato go further, labelling the CGS “not worth the paper it’s printed on”. As Brexit goes on, there is uncertainty surrounding the terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU; and Whitehead highlights “continued membership of the [EU-affiliated organisations] EU ETS and Euratom as priorities.” He continues: “We’ve still got to have substantial interconnections and also substantial back up capacity across the system and that is where I think Brexit is a particular issue. We need to manage negotiations to remain in the European energy market and the prospects of getting the levels of interconnection we need to back up the system are remote.”

Ultimately, Whitehead argues that any government’s long-term industrial strategy must centre on its cleaner energy commitments. “You’ve got to look at everything in the economy as part of the green paradigm. Green energy is not a niche activity anymore.” And how does the Labour Party intend to supplant the Green Party in leading the left’s charge on environmental issues? “We’ve adopted it [energy policy] as one of our core industrial missions – that some 60 per cent of energy will be renewable or from low-carbon sources by 2030. We’re looking at what green energy policy looks like in terms of skills and employment. We want to convert the UK economy in a wholesale green direction.”

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