Climate Change & Energy – Review of the Year 2006

The year saw climate change ascend the political agenda in the UK and internationally, its spectacular rise in the mainstream media and politicians' speeches unfortunately accompanied by an increase in global carbon emissions.

The lack of commitment from politicians could not halt the advance of renewables, however – from tried-and-tested onshore wind to cutting-edge technologies such as geo-pressure.

Meanwhile, as British politicians competed to out-green each other while the world pondered Kyoto, scientists revealed that that the world’s carbon emissions were not only rising, but rising at an accelerated rate, at 2.5% a year since the year 2000 compared to an annual 1% in the 1990s.

Galloping economic growth in parts of the developing world is partly to blame, as the economies of ‘third world’ countries led by China and India catch up with the West. And the future is less than promising – developing countries are likely to account for over 70% of the growth in energy use in the next 24 years, the IEA predicted in its World Energy Outlook for 2006.

Overall, global energy use will rise by around 53% by 2030, the IEA estimated – and most (83%) of that increase will come from fossil fuels, taking the world into a “dirty, insecure and expensive” energy future, the agency darkly predicts.

But the West is far from innocent – emissions from the top 41 developed countries went up by 2.4% between 2001 and 2004, UN data revealed in November. The winding-down of post-Soviet industry offset a rise in emissions from the West until the end of the 1990s, but with emissions from the ex-Soviet bloc now back on the rise the total CO2 pumped out by industrialised countries has followed suit.

Meanwhile Britain saw emissions rise by about 2% since 2000, Government figures revealed in March. The gap between highly publicised goals and real-life emission cuts seemed to widen further when the UK admitted it would miss its own 2010 target of cutting carbon emissions by 20%.

Theory and practice also diverged when it came to Kyoto, with a question mark remaining over the future of the protocol after international negotiators meeting in Nairobi in November agreed emissions needed to be halved, but failed to decide on a timetable for action.

On the positive side, the year saw the link between economy and climate change reinforced with then ground-breaking Stern review assessing the future costs of climate change for the first time, and ever-growing concerns over energy security fuelled by continuing conflict in the Middle East and Russia’s internal rows.

Energy security became an ever-present argument in the climate change debate, culminating with George Bush’s declaration that the US is “addicted to oil” in his January 2006 State of the Union speech, which left the world gasping in disbelief.

Stern sent shock-waves across the globe when he estimated that climate change will cost the world up to 20% of its GDP under a “business of usual” scenario. Sir Nicholas Stern recommended an annual investment of 1% of GDP to avert ‘catastrophic’ climate change by stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at 550ppm CO2 equivalent – small change compared to the massive losses this could prevent.

The money should be spent on developing low-carbon technologies and cutting energy waste, catalysed by putting a global “price on carbon,” as well as on curbing emissions from deforestation – an often overlooked greenhouse gas source responsible for around 18% of global emissions – Stern recommended.

The debate over what “low-carbon” actually means showed no sign of dying down, however, fired up further by the prospect of a new generation of nuclear power stations for the UK recommended by the Energy Review in July, just three months after an independent committee of Government advisors rejected nuclear as a dangerous technology that produces only limited carbon cuts.

Other debatable “green energy” sources included biofuels, which have often mistakenly been called ‘carbon neutral’ while the energy required to grow and process them needs to be taken into account if the “green” claims are to be justified (see related story).

Onshore wind power, one undisputedly zero-carbon technology, continued its steady advance as one of the best value green energy sources around, but with UK policy far from ideal according to some experts and planning delays or lack of grid access still putting the breaks on many projects.

Offshore wind and other emerging technologies are feeling a particular lack of support under the Renewables Obligation, the main British policy aimed at promoting green electricity, an Economic and Social Research Council report said.

Despite the setbacks and complaints, Britain saw approval granted for what is to become the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, expected to generate 1GW of green electricity once built, giving hope of fulfilling more of the immense potential of the technology in Britain – the country with the biggest offshore wind potential in the world

As the European Commission prepares to debate energy and climate change policy, with a report expected next week, Europe may yet take things forward where Britain is failing. But even within the current and imperfect policy climate, business is seizing the potential of low-carbon technologies that will no doubt continue to gain ground in 2007.

Goska Romanowicz

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