Thursday, 17 May 2012

New dash for gas puts UK action on climate change at risk

“Gas is cheap,” said the Chancellor of the Exchequer in last month’s budget speech, “has much less carbon than coal and will be the largest single source of our electricity in the coming years.” The case for increasing use of gas in power generation in the short term has some obvious attractions.    Times are tight, and people’s wallets are already overburdened. Ofgem, the energy regulator, is expecting a “tightness” in electricity supply in the period between the closure of coal-fired power stations in 2015, and the opening of the Hinkley Point Nuclear station in 2019 at the earliest. We are going to need some more gas, the government reasons, to bridge the gap. Replacing coal-fired generation with gas, which produces less emissions, provides a quick route to reducing emissions in the power generation sector.  The North Sea oil and gas reserves are a valuable resource, of which the country could make good use in these difficult times, and which will reduce our reliance on foreign power, so lets get fracking!

However, the Committee on Climate Change states that during the 2020s the UK must achieve a substantial decarbonisation of the power sector.   The Government’s proposal for an Emissions Performance Standard, as it currently stands, would enshrine a limit on carbon emissions of 450g/KWh for each new plant which would be retained until 2045. This could hardly be called ‘decarbonisation.’ Moreover, as more investment in gas is encouraged, there is a risk that this could come at the expense of low carbon energy sources.  In an open letter to Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the Committee points out that this policy risks allowing gas power to over step the limits on carbon emissions implied by the reduction targets to which the UK is committed. They state

“If the 30 GW of gas-fired capacity were to generate as baseload plant in 2030, this would raise average emissions to 200g CO2/kWh (i.e. beyond the limits implied by carbon budgets).”

These proposals on gas power, and the government’s intention to simplify and weaken the Carbon Reduction Commitments, suggest that carbon reduction may be slipping in the government’s priorities.

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