Labour climate consultation
My submission to the Labour Party National Policy Forum consultation
The consultation document reads:
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world. We need a government which takes it seriously and puts protecting the future of our planet at the heart of its values and policies; this is what Labour believes and this is what Labour will do. The Tories promised “the greenest government ever” but have failed to deliver. Six years of this Government have shown they have no proper plan to tackle climate change, no strategy to build a low carbon economy and no idea how to protect our precious environment. Labour will act to protect the future of our planet, with social justice at the heart of our environmental policies, and take action to fulfil the Paris climate agreement. We need to understand how best we can ensure a fair transition to a low-carbon economy, and drive the expansion of the green industries and jobs of the future, including in our rural communities. We need to ensure environmental stewardship and sustainability in our agriculture and fisheries policies and to improve air quality, especially in urban areas. Finding ways of investing in clean energy and curbing energy bill rises for households, tackling food poverty, ensuring food safety and supporting our food producers are challenges for a future Labour Government.
What can we do to tackle the local, national and global effects of climate change?
How do we address the challenges faced by that those that live in our rural areas?
How can we ensure we support green industries, invest in clean energy and curb energy bill rises for households?
How do we guarantee that we meet the challenges in the food sector including tackling food poverty and supporting our farmers?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the world's foremost body assessing the science on climate change, its likely effects and humanity's options for mitigating and adapting to those effects. It has had panels comprising scores of world-ranking experts examining the evidence on these issues for over a quarter of a century. The IPCC's most recent findings are published in its 5th Assessment Report and it is currently working on its sixth.
The IPCC's Working Group III, studying mitigation and adaptation, address most of the questions posed in this consultation. Their work considers energy, transport, buildings, industry, agriculture, forestry and waste management, and analyses the costs and benefits of different approaches. It also considers social justice issues and how they affect mitigation and adaptation scenarios.
The Working Group's findings are extensive, and too wide-ranging to cover all of them here; the Labour Party should be considering them in all aspects of policy. And of course Labour has already taken significant action through the last Labour government's [Climate Change Act of 2008], committing the country to an 80% reduction in CO2-equivalent Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2050. We need now to formulate policy which draws on the IPCC's scientific findings to enable us to meet our CCA commitments in practice.
In the specific area of the energy sector, which is found to be particularly crucial for mitigation of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), the IPCC's assessment is that to have the best chance of limiting global temperature rise to less than 2C requires a global tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon energy supply from renewable energy, nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS) or BECCS (Bio-Energy with CCS) by 2050.
In the UK the most potent and well-developed source of renewable energy is wind. Although [experts agree] that intermittent renewable sources such as wind cannot supply more than a minor proportion of our electricity demand wind is relatively cheap and quick to build and can provide a useful reduction in the overall carbon emissions of the electricity sector. The cost and safety of onshore wind is significantly lower than for offshore. However the Tories have banned any more onshore wind developments for reasons that seem to be pure NIMBY-ism; Labour should oppose the ban and reverse it when in government.
Biomass is officially considered renewable by the EU and half of the generation capacity at the UK's Drax power station has been converted to burning wood pellets. However there are considerable doubts about the overall carbon footprint of Biomass when considering the energy taken to harvest and transport it, and especially in the case of wood such as used at Drax, the time taken to regrow trees. (There are also concerns with the source of Drax' fuel which is harvested from old-growth mature forests in the US.) On the other hand the use of biomass as a fuel with Carbon Capture and Storage is recognised by the IPCC as a key technology for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, so the UK should put in place mechanisms for sourcing sustainably produced biomass.
Solar, wave, tidal stream and other intermittent renewable technologies can make lesser contributions to reducing our fossil fuel consumption, but none either individually or collectively can provide all, or even a majority, of our requirements. It may be worth making modest investments in developing technologies like wave and tidal stream energy, and energy storage systems, but these shouldn't distract from the necessity of progressing immediately with decarbonising our electricity production in order to get to 100% over the next 2 or 3 decades.
Nuclear is the only low-carbon technology capable of being expanded to meet our entire electricity requirements, and the demands of other sectors which can be converted to use electricity. Some next-generation reactor technologies are also intended to provide process heat which can be used to directly decarbonise industries such as the Haber-Bosch process used to make fertiliser, and cement production, and even to synthesise chemical fuels for use in aviation and heavy road transport. Given the use of nuclear propulsion in submarines, aircraft carriers and icebreakers there seems no fundamental reason that nuclear power could not replace the extremely polluting diesel engines used in merchant shipping.
However nuclear energy is a contentious issue and a clear policy commitment to renewing, let alone expanding, our existing nuclear fleet will no doubt bring attacks from the Green Party, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others. Rather than getting drawn into a defensive position on the issue it might be more effective to challenge the detractors' position:
- do they accept the IPCC's assessment that climate change is such a serious threat that we need all available means to mitigate it, or do they take what is in effect a "luke-warmist" AGW denialist position?
- do they accept all the findings of the IPCC, on climate science and on mitigation, or do they "cherry pick" only the findings that suit their beliefs?
- if they reject the IPCC's (and other experts') assessment on mitigation do they think the experts are (a) incompetent, or (b) corrupt (both positions also taken by outright AGW denialists) and what is their evidence for thinking so?
In general, when communicating about climate change, nuclear energy and other scientific issues we should be informed by the relatively new science of Science Communication in conveying factual information without inadvertently [bolstering antipathetic attitudes or strengthening factually-incorrect myths.]
The main problem with our nuclear renewal programme (and current-generation nuclear power generally) is the capital cost and timescales, and consequent financial risks, involved. Unfortunately the UK's programme is almost optimally designed to secure the highest costs and longest build times due to its choice of various different, mostly as-yet unproven reactor designs. [Evidence] shows that lowest costs and shortest build times are achieved by standardising on a proven design. We are already contractually committed to the EPR at Hinkley. Whilst the proposed second EPR build at Sizewell C should be somewhat cheaper and quicker to build (reflected in the reduced "strike price" for electricity sold by both plants that would result) it seems unlikely that this design will ever be particularly quick and cheap to build. With Toshiba having practically bankrupted itself through its involvement in the nuclear power industry after it bought Westinghouse there must be a question over the wisdom of continuing with plans for it to build three of its AP1000 reactors at Moorside (even though Toshiba says it remains committed to the project). I don't think decisions have been taken on designs to replace other parts of our ageing Magnox and AGR fleet at other sites. Part of the deal for China part-financing Hinkley C seems to have been getting their Hualong One design, to be built at Bradwell, approved for the British market as a gateway to further acceptance in Western markets. The Hualong One seems to be an incremental improvement of existing, proven designs, which China has a lot of experience building already, rather than a radical new design such as the EPR and AP1000. It would obviously benefit China's worldwide nuclear sales to demonstrate a succession of reasonably-priced, on-time and to-budget builds on British soil, and it might likewise benefit the UK's rusty nuclear expertise to cooperate with a world leader in the construction of existing technology reactors and one that is enthusiastically pursuing advanced new designs. South Korea and Canada also have fairly proven current-generation reactors which we could consider. In general I am suggesting that we should aim to select a standard, more-or-less off-the-shelf design to build quickly and economically to replace our current fleet, whilst developing more promising technologies for the future.
It is widely accepted in the nuclear energy industry that the future will increasingly be in Small Modular Reactors and Next Generation designs. The UK conducted a feasibility study of Small Modular Reactors in 2014 and is conducting a [competition] to select a design to support. Amongst the contenders is likely to be a consortium led by Rolls Royce, which has a long-established track record in designing and building small reactors for submarines. Such an enterprise could help not only provide plentiful low-carbon energy safely and more economically but also revitalise British nuclear expertise. (Rolls-Royce's maritime nuclear experience might also be exploited in decarbonising merchant marine shipping, a field in which the UK might become a profitable world leader.)
Most Small Modular Reactors are based on the same pressurised, light-water technology used in most existing power stations worldwide - effectively scaled-down versions of such designs. A widely-regarded, partially proven and radically different technology being promoted and, in some cases, actively developed by various groups around the world is based on molten salts rather than water, and liquid fuel rather than solid fuel rods. (Some of these designs also use Thorium, and some use spent conventional reactor fuel, rather than fresh Uranium, as fuel.) A 2016 study published by the UK's Energy Process Developments, which reviewed several such designs, found in favour of UK start-up Moltex Energy’s “Stable Salt Reactor“. Moltex seem to have based their design decisions on achieving the highest degree of inherent, built-in safety, and also claim that their design has been independently costed at a price comparable with coal-fired power stations. Whether Moltex' design lives up to its claims or others prove superior, the UK should certainly be involved in a technology which may be the mammals to big conventional nuclear's dinosaurs, as the internal combustion engine was to steam in the last century.
History suggests that cheap, plentiful sources of energy tend to facilitate economic prosperity. Britain’s Industrial Revolution was based on coal, America’s economic rise (and Saudi Arabia’s wealth) on oil, Icelanders enjoy a high standard of living due to the country's geothermal energy, and Norway’s citizens are now comfortably off thanks to its government’s prudent management of the North Sea oil and gas bonanza (which we would be enjoying too had not Thatcher squandered much of the proceeds on enriching the already wealthy and fostering unemployment in order to destroy the Trades Unions). Many of those pursuing next-generation simpler, safer reactors in the US, Canada, Europe and the Far East recognise their potential not only for tackling climate change but also for generating prodigious quantities of cheap energy and earning lots of money. It would be fitting for Labour, who recognised the value of technology in the 1960s with our first ever Minister for Technology, to foster the energy technologies which can best abate global warming and secure renewed economic prosperity for our country and the world.
Carbon Capture and Storage
The IPCC's models find that CCS is even more crucial to effective AGW mitigation than renewables and nuclear. The technologies for capturing carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels (which can be achieved in different ways), and transporting it and storing it, are all developed and in use in various industries. Britain has expertise in these fields, but UK governments have failed to provide the finance to develop a full-scale pilot plant for electricity generation. This is a failure Labour should commit to rectifying. In particular Bio-Energy CCS provides a mechanism for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, and with the UK's Drax power station switching from coal to wood it should be considered whether this could become a BECCS plant.
The UK also already has a pilot project (H21 Leeds City Gate) to remove and sequester CO2 from natural gas, producing Hydrogen which will be supplied via the existing gas network to consumers in Leeds (whose appliances will be converted to use the new fuel, in much the same way that appliances were converted from Town Gas to "North Sea Gas" in the 1970s). If this is successful it could provide a way of rapidly decarbonising the UK's heating - a significant proportion of our CO2-producing energy usage. A readily-available supply of Hydrogen nation-wide could also allow significant decarbonisation of transport, through Hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Such an approach will of course require continued supplies of natural gas, at a time when our North Sea reserves are dwindling. Alternative sources have problems of reliability and - especially in the case of Russian and Middle-Eastern sources - political volatility of supply, and an increased carbon footprint when supplies are transported as liquefied natural gas. Electricity is increasingly generated from natural gas rather than coal, especially when rapid response is required to compensate for fluctuations in variable renewable sources. To satisfy these demands over the coming decades exploitation of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") will have to be considered. Apart from protests by activists there seem to be mixed [views amongst scientific and engineering experts] about the technical aspects of this process, and especially whether fugitive emissions of methane - a highly potent greenhouse gas - can be effectively controlled in a large industry.
Economics for change
An important factor in moving to a low-carbon economy is how this is achieved. Approaches can be based on regulation (such as mandating levels of energy efficiency), subsidy (such as feed-in tariffs), or carbon pricing (e.g. cap and trade).
The IPCC [finds] that "mechanisms that set a carbon price, including cap and trade systems and carbon taxes, can achieve mitigation in a cost-effective way" and I gather that economists generally favour this approach over others. An important feature in public acceptability is revenue neutrality: returning money raised by carbon taxes to those most affected, either by reductions in regressive taxes such as purchase and value added taxes, or dividends paid through social security systems. Importantly such taxes (re-branded as "fee and dividend") may also appeal to those on the right of the political spectrum e.g. current US Republicans and even climate change denialists.
We need a sustainability policy which is not dependent on continuing Labour government - or even achieving government: climate change is too important to be a party political issue. We in the Labour Party should continue to work with non-party-political groups such as the Green Alliance and with climate realists in other parties to promote effective AGW mitigation policies across benches and to the public at large.
Development and Growth
Climate science and climate change action is caught between conflicting world-views; simplistically there is one side who accept the science on climate change and its connection with human economic activities, who blame AGW on our modern industrialised civilisation per se and call for a drastic reduction in world-wide energy usage, and even the overthrow of all forms of capitalism. On the other side are those who embrace capitalism, materialism and free markets, who have reacted by denying the science on climate change itself.
It seems unlikely that we will enjoy a transition to a world-wide socialist utopia any time soon, and extremely irresponsible to predicate urgently-needed climate change action on such a transformation. Also the sort of energy austerity proposed by many Greens, where energy is available scantily and intermittently at high cost in both monetary and embodied energy terms, runs into a fundamental problem of [Energy Return On Energy Investment]; when the proportion of energy generated that has to go back into producing more energy is more than a certain ratio it is simply not possible to run the functions of a modern society such as production of food, clothes, shelter, education, healthcare etc.
On the other hand conservatives’ head-in-the-sand AGW denialism is clearly also not a valid option.
We have to find ways of tackling climate change (and other sustainability issues) which are based on evidence of being effective and can be implemented by governments of different political and economic persuasions. The Labour Party should be vocal in insistence on the urgency of tackling global warming, supportive of the government when it does make progress on the issue and intensely critical of its shortcomings in making sufficient progress. (We should be equally critical of the Green Party and others who reject the expert consensus on solutions for AGW mitigation.) We should promote economic measures recommended by the experts, such as carbon taxation (or “fee and dividend” or whatever pill-sugaring is needed to make it acceptable). And we should defend the IPCC (and other expert bodies) and promote their findings on both climate science and AGW mitigation. We may be able to learn from, and find allies in the “Ecomodernists”, who assert that it is possible to continuing the last few centuries' general trend of improving quality of life whilst decarbonising our energy supplies, reducing unsustainable resource consumption and effectively tackling climate change and other boundaries to human life on earth.
Europe and the World
The UK's actions on AGW mitigation to date have been totally inadequate. It seems inconceivable that we will meet the reduction of 50% emissions by 2025 as required by the CCA. And yet we are far from the world's, or even Europe's worst performer in this respect and we are actually a world leader in having at least embodied in law a realistic commitment to action in the Climate Change Act. Despite the loss of our former Empire we still enjoy a political, economic and scientific influence out of proportion to our size. Whilst our own contribution to, and thus what we can do to mitigate climate change is a small proportion of the global problem, we can use our global influence to achieve far more. Unfortunately the isolationist (and AGW denialist) political tendency which is driving us out of Europe is likely to diminish our abilities in this respect, and Labour should do what it can to mitigate, if not reverse, our withdrawal from the EU. In particular there is clearly no specific mandate for the breakup of European-wide scientific collaboration and certainly no justification for the UK withdrawing from Euratom as the Tories propose.
The main economic and political powers, and greatest contributors to AGW, are the USA, Russia, China and Europe. As a member of the EU we obviously have far more influence on the latter than we would do outside it. Of the others the situation in the US is so uncertain it is hard to see what positive influence could be exerted, although there seems little cause for optimism. The Russian leadership seems more interested in its own intrigues and interests than that of the world and its future generations as a whole. China however seems genuinely interested in taking effective action on AGW; despite having scuppered the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit they seem to have come around to taking climate change mitigation seriously in their agreement with the US under Obama and, despite pessimists predicting that they would abandon it when Trump took power, they seem to remain committed and to see mitigation as not only posing challenges but also offering economic opportunities. China could be not only a useful ally in worldwide climate change diplomacy but also a business partner in profitably exploiting our scientific and technological expertise in AGW mitigation technologies.
I write this as a citizen concerned for my fellow humans and especially for our children and future generations (which is also why I am a member of the Labour Party). I am not an expert in any of these matters, although as an engineer I am aware that (as the Nobel-laureate physicist Richard Feynman observed) we can’t fool nature; thus I try to follow the best available evidence rather than my personal likes and dislikes, and I have shown the best sources I can for the suggestions I offer. In some cases I haven't been able to find a link to a particular sources and have had to rely on my memory of its gist. In this and my selection of, and interpretation of my sources no doubt I have sometimes succumbed to bias or error. The Labour Party should really be obtaining better advice than I or other lay members can provide in formulating policy so crucial to humanity.