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Fuel and the environment


Can we live green and prosper? Britain’s energy supplies have struggled to meet demand in the recent freezing weather, prompting fears of serious shortages against a backdrop of cutting carbon emissions. But some believe the development of new technologies could lead to a green industrial revolution if we act fast enough

During the winter of 1947, when the Pennine snowdrifts topped five metres, many trains ran late, unreliably and frustratingly full. But the late Roger Lloyd, a canon of Winchester, recalled seeing passengers waiting on a frozen platform and cheering as a grimy freight train got the green light, swung on to the fast line and clattered past them laden with coal to feed the power-station furnaces.

Sixty-three years later, the priorities remain the same: heating homes, driving industry and keeping Britain on the move. The ways to achieve those priorities though – assuming we can – have changed drastically. The fossil fuels – oil, gas and, to a degree, coal – are both harder to find and too dirty to use: most scientists and politicians agree we should cut the greenhouse-gas emissions that fossil fuels cause by at least 50 per cent below their 1990 levels by 2050. Many want cuts of 80-90 per cent.

At that rate, can we keep the home fires burning? And will we still have an economy with cuts like those? The fairly good news is that the answer to both questions is probably yes – if we have the knowledge and the money to do much of what needs doing. But we need to do it fast – because action in the next decade will be both cheaper and much more effective than leaving it till later.

In July 2009 the Climate Group, an international NGO, published a report, “Technology for a Low Carbon Future”. It concluded that 70 per cent of the reductions needed in the next 10 years could be achieved by investing in energy efficiency (in lighting, vehicles, buildings and motors), by using lower-carbon energy sources, and through reducing deforestation. The report says four sectors are crucial to reaching the more demanding 2050 reduction target: power (38 per cent), transport (26 per cent), building (17 per cent) and the remaining 19 per cent from improvements in industry. The cost of necessary improvements in technology between now and 2050 were estimated as the equivalent of 1.4 per cent of GDP – huge, but much of it having to be spent anyway on business-as-usual high-carbon alternatives

No country has managed to reduce poverty without increasing its use of energy. Photo: Reuters with no emission reductions to show for them. Improving standards for new buildings and modernising existing ones, for example, could save 1.3 gigatons (Gt) of energy, while reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, would provide nearly 9Gt.

That is one strategy which will provide a double benefit. In a normal British winter, about 35,000 more people die than in the comparable summer quarter: in Scandinavia seasonal death rates hardly vary. Andrew Warren, director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, says: “Six million British households live in fuel poverty, spending 10 per cent or more of their disposable income on keeping warm. Heating and providing hot water for commercial buildings and homes is the single biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the UK, far bigger than transport or industry. We should be ensuring that our buildings keep the heat inside, not letting it escape to warm the birds.”

But cutting emissions as deeply as the science indicates will never be easy. Carbon capture and storage (CCS), for example, which involves trapping the carbon dioxide emitted from power-station and factory chimneys and storing it underground, sounds like a good idea. That is just what it is – an idea that has not yet been tested anywhere on a commercial scale. Other imponderables are new generation nuclear power stations and the further expansion of wind power. Even if – a big if – they win public acceptance, they may make only a small contribution to bridging the energy gap.

The not really encouraging news is that there is no silver bullet to deliver us from energy shortages. Instead, there are various approaches that can each make a limited but crucial contribution. The obvious ones (if they prove possible) include the clean use of fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energy. Others mean using less energy (wearing more jumpers? travelling less?), energy conservation (using one source for several purposes, as in a combined heat and power plant), and biofuels, provided they do not drive out food crops. Many analysts believe we will have to use them all to have any chance of cutting emissions enough.

Some years ago the Government’s then chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, was asked about the chances of achieving more modest emissions cuts than we now face. He replied: “It’s do-able. But we’ll have to bust a gut to do it.” Today the gut is ampler, and time is shorter.

Suppose we manage it. What then? What should we make of the voices that are saying that meeting the targets will mean forfeiting economic growth? You might expect the Confederation of British Industry to have a view on this. It has. Its director general, Richard Lambert, said a year ago that the global economic crisis was no reason for inaction on climate change.

“If the Government can deliver the right framework for investment then UK businesses

6 | THE TABLET | 16 January 2010

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