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21 November 2019

UK politicians follow, not lead, with shallow climate promises

A brief walkthrough of the UK Green party manifesto for energy, its new green deal, shows that you do not get much change out of what is effectively £1 trillion over ten years.

But it is a good reminder of all the touchpoints you must embark upon to get to zero emissions. We went through the major spending points, not counting their take on agriculture, and the headlines would be a carbon tax which includes flights, and which gets bigger every year for ten years; a ban fracking; connecting our electric cables to neighboring, but green, countries to share; introduce demand response systems into electricity operators; increase renewables and batteries for renewables; convert 1 million homes a year to electric heating and another 1 million to solar panels and batteries.

That’s not the full list, we just paused for breath. Oh yeah, double the size of the national grid; ban new nuclear power stations; prohibit non-EV cars by 2030; build an underground thermal network to heat industrial and retail buildings from centralized renewables power; change planning laws on building regulations, to adhere to the Passivhaus heat efficiency standard; invest in trains, trams and electric buses which all run on electricity.

The Greens also want to cut the cost of public transport, which we thought was a nod to Labour’s plans to nationalize the railway, but the Greens only want to nationalize the rolling stock and add lots of bike hire schemes, and spend £2.5 billion a year on new cycleways and footpaths

There would be an end to new flight runways; and funding for EV charge points and ensuring that all existing petrol stations and motorway service

stations to offer EV charge points by 2025. Why would they not anyway?

Much of this we cannot argue with, except about how to get there. The right way is to establish government policy and subsidize those who will move early, not pay outright for work which replaces electricity operators and existing industrials. That amounts to a nationalizing of existing jobs, a little like France, where 50% of the employment workforce works for an entity owned by the French government. It may suit France, but it would not work in the UK.

But there are some issues which are fraught. The first is basing a carbon tax on what is released when fossil fuels are burnt. This week we are realizing for the very first time that extracting coal, in much the same way as extracting natural gas by fracking, gives off unmeasured methane in the extraction process. It is an unspecified amount, because no-one measures it and the coal mines and the frackers all insist it just doesn’t happen – but now we know it does.

Natural gas is as bad as coal if you count both the CO2 from burned amount of gas, plus the methane from fracking it out of the ground. Except that coal is worse, now we realized that it too unleashes methane when mined. So we would have the Greens revise it to being a carbon tax based on its total lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, which are only just now becoming apparent.

But then again it plans to put natural gas, oil and coal out of business with carbon taxation, and then stop nuclear as well. If you look at the rate for build out of renewables in the 10 years to 2030, it has to go off the chart, and that means reducing permitting time for each project, driving a horse and cart through the planning regulations, and introducing a quick fire way of resolving issues like the civil protest which has slowed onshore wind power to a crawl in the UK, but also in Germany.  But how would that be consistent with a “Green” party, which typically would be very caring about civil protest and environmental concerns?

What about its idea of doubling the capacity of the grid? Is that wise or even required? In one alternative worldview entrepreneurs push renewables and do not connect them to the grid “per se” but to local distributors – and slowly the local distributor can pick the best deals from multiple sources of local energy and take less and less electricity from the grid. If that is encouraged and if it happens, then the money wasted on upgrading the grid could be very large indeed.

The same goes for the idea of supporting residential solar + battery installations, which can operate under cloud software control as a virtual Power Plant – not only is this far more expensive than local utility scale additions to the electricity supply – it also means that the grid upgrades were even less necessary.

Which is what shows this is a politicians attempt at solving problems, not a scientist view, as the scientist would test decentralized and centralized, as two approaches, then make a choice and then stick with it, not try to do both.

The Greens would also want to build an EV charging network and add smart control to this so that it is yet another source of distributed available energy, from localized batteries. Again, really good idea, but it relieves the grid, it does not burden it.

Let’s say that we go with the distributed approach, then the best way would be to get a major equipment vendor or two, to put a financing deal together whereby solar, plus a home EV charger, plus battery plus heat exchangers for home heat, were all put on a single lease, which is sourced using a contract for difference style lease, which is therefore only partially paid for by the government with each home paying what it can – and then everyone in the supply chain is making money and it costs a fraction of the full amount.

As a political party this manifesto is not awful, and it is the only one that’s actually published, but it’s not how you go about solving a climate crisis. To do that you want to “incentivize” businesses to work with you, taking some of the risk and putting up some of the money, and just have the government remove the risk sufficiently that things take off – not pay for it all lock stock and barrel from an ever increasing tax burden.

But then again, the Green party has never been in charge of anything, and that’s why it can bandy around these “massive spending” ideas, because there is never any danger that more than 2% or 3% of the voting population is ever going to vote for the party. The manifesto is there not so much as a vote catcher, but as a reminder to the other parties how extreme climate change is and how much money may be needed. But then the Green party then went and ruined much of the idea by stating publicly that the money from the carbon tax would not be used exclusively to fight climate change, but also to introduce a “Universal Income,” in the process mixing up climate change with socialism.

And a carbon tax that allows the fossil fuel supplier to pass the costs onto the consumers, is next to useless. They tried it in France and the Yellow Jackets emerged.

Which brings us to Labour’s promises, also in the news this week, first swinging towards a copy of the Green party – zero emissions by 2030 – then all the way back to its previous position – 90% of electricity from green sources by 2030 and the rest of the job done by 2050, when it finally emerged in its manifesto.

Labour then promised an additional 1 million jobs in green energy, but then went on to list dodgy subjects such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), the creation of hydrogen and tidal energy, along with the expansion of port infrastructure, tree planting, flood defenses and plastics recycling.

There are perhaps two tidal prospective energy projects on the horizon in the UK, but they will furnish very few MW (Swansea tidal Lagoon is 320 MW and the Severn River Barrage which is multi GW but massively expensive), and it is effectively a dead technology. Adding to the ports seems more likely to add to CO2 emissions, so we remain a little perplexed by Labour’s plans. One review of the wave and tidal streams in the UK concluded that it could deliver 20% of the country’s electricity needs up at 30 GW, but no projects were issued because the price is out of the ball-park and typically these projects are multi-decade.

Given that no single UK party has been in power for any longer than 12 years in the last 50 years, the Labour plan is tantamount to saying that the job can be done by the “next” government. And that’s pretty much what the conservatives have been doing in power, not losing the race to get emissions down entirely, but not doing quite enough to get the job done, so we are in a position where conceivable we can catch up.

And with the exception of the USA, that’s pretty much a politicians view everywhere, and why the major oil companies of this world are preparing for business as usual until about 2030, and then a slow winding down to around 2070 – because while they can see precisely what “needs” to be done to avoid the dangers of global warming, but they cannot see how a democracy can elect anyone to go through the “difficult decisions” that are required to get there.

Labour has not completed its energy manifesto as yet, but has blurted out a number of things – UK public companies that do not decarbonize will be kicked out of the London stock market? Who says? The government does not run the stock market. And that would just strengthen the Nasdaq or the French and Germany Börses.

The decision by Labour “not” to go with the 2030 plan was down to opposition by the GMB union, which claimed that such a rapid timeframe would put jobs in jeopardy. The GMB trade union has just 631,000 members and presumably they were all asked for their opinion on this, and this represents one man one vote, compared to the Labour party’s 512,000 membership and it is only for union members who were also Labour party members. Surely this was not the Labour party giving in to a union block vote? Well maybe. But the party is now clearly confused by the watering down of its climate change plan – gone in a few days with someone forgetting to tell Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Labour’s business spokeswoman, who managed to tweet about the manifesto being about net zero by 2030 on the day the plans were pulled.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour party’s leader, also had to remove an Instagram post with the slogan “carbon neutral by 2030 only with Labour.”

This plan involved building dozens of state-owned offshore windfarms, at a cost of £83 billion in public and private money. How the GMB genuinely believes that “real” energy jobs will be lost by spending £83 billion is beyond us. What we think it means is that traditional energy jobs, like those in coal mining and oil production will be lost. Not a Union we’d trust with climate change.

At best Labour is expected to say it will eradicate sales of petrol and diesel vehicles ahead of the current government’s 2040 date.

So while it goes without saying that the Conservative government cannot be trusted with climate change (see our critique from previous issues), it now looks like few outside of the Greens can even cobble together a climate change plan. News also came out this week that the Conservatives have more financial support from climate sceptics than any other party, according to DeSmog, which calls out climate change denial.

The Liberal Democrats manifesto also came out this week, and before this it has put out a few snippets. It includes a spend of £100 billion (10% of the Green party), and kicks off with £10 billion investment in a Renewable Power Fund to leverage further investment, perhaps as much as £100 billion in private monies, into projects which will fast-track clean energy.

But then leader Jo Swinson also committed a horrible “Faux Pas,” similar to the Labour manifesto, talking about tidal power in the same breath as offshore wind, a source of energy that has had 20 years to take off and never looked like it would. This may be a reference to her finally funding the Swansea tidal lagoon plan, which has been on and off, with and without government funding, for a decade.

She also said that there will be a £15 billion investment to make every building in the country greener, with an emergency ten-year program to save energy, end fuel poverty and cut heating bills. There is some concern here that she means fuel subsidies, but the manifesto says it’s a package for retrofitting 26 million homes with insulation. It will also plant 60 million trees.

Swinson says that the Liberal democrats want to tackle climate change by generating 80% of UK electricity from renewables by 2030 by doubling the rate of solar and wind farms – and accuses the Conservatives in power of “banning” onshore wind, a move we must have missed, because it didn’t happen.

So there you have the four major parties (the Brexit party does not have a position on climate change that we can discern) – one wants to spend the earth, but reads more like a list of technologies than a coherent strategy; one wants to carry on much the same as usual; while another cannot make up its mind without the unions telling it what do to, and the fourth has stumbled over a major piece of “misspeaking” before the manifesto comes off the presses.

Luckily the electricity sector seems to be doing fine without these politicians and all progress made so far comes from a concerted effort from UK utilities and their suppliers.