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by Kirsteen Paterson
07 November 2022
Power Struggle: Will the energy crisis derail climate change targets?

Power Struggle: Will the energy crisis derail climate change targets?

Despite all the promises of urgency and action, the Paris climate goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C this century is slipping away. 

The latest UN assessment says there is currently “no credible pathway” to achieving the target without game-changing global action, and Scotland’s own legislated limits are increasingly under question. Meanwhile, the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s war on Ukraine has limited imports of gas and led to calls from some quarters to increase, not decrease, domestic production in the North Sea. 

It may only be 12 months since world leaders travelled to Glasgow for COP26, but that event happened in a different world before inflation ran rampant. As the summit shifts to the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, scientists are asking if the focus is quite what it was, and if politicians and policymakers realise just how much is still to be done.

Updated national pledges since COP26, the UN says, “make a negligible difference to predicted 2030 emissions” and we are “far from” keeping global warming to well below 2C, based on the current trajectory. At best, it claims, current pledges put us on track for a 2.4-2.6C rise by the end of the century and “only an urgent system-wide transformation can deliver the enormous cuts needed” to make 2030 goals achievable. 

“One of the issues we have had,” says Professor David Reay, executive director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute (ECCI), “is an attention crisis on climate change. Eyes are on other issues like the cost of food and the energy crisis, even though climate change underpins action on all of this. The Paris climate goals and our national targets are in real danger.”

But, Reay says, “the game is not over; in fact, the game is fully on”. “We still can determine how much the world warms, how we deal with climate change, how we adapt to it,” he emphasises.

wild fire

The intention to slash emissions by 75 per cent by 2030, relative to 1990 levels of key pollutants, was put into legislation by the Scottish Parliament as an interim move towards the 2045 goal of achieving net zero emissions. “The 2030 target went beyond our advised target,” says Dr David Joffe of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent statutory body which was established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the UK’s governments. “We are looking quite hard to see how the legislated target for 2030 can be met, and we haven’t yet found a way to do that.” 

Part of the issue, Joffe says, is that key levers that could be used by Scotland to meet the goal are reserved to Westminster, which doesn’t necessarily pull them “in a way that suits Scotland and at a maximum pace”. But even if Holyrood held those levers, he goes on, the CCC – which will submit its latest report to MSPs next month – is still “not sure” the target could be met. “We have to get as close as we can,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a safe threshold. Even 1.5C is not safe; if we can’t meet 1.5C, let’s meet 1.55C or 1.56C. That has to be the attitude in domestic targets as well.”

Against this backdrop, the news that new PM Rishi Sunak is committed to maintaining the UK Government’s moratorium on fracking is welcome news to scientists. Plans to overturn that were amongst the first measures announced by his predecessor Liz Truss during her 49 days in office. Truss also favoured more North Sea oil and gas extraction, telling her first PMQs session that this, and more nuclear power, could help address rising energy costs as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to drive fuel prices up. 

It’s a step the Scottish Government is opposed to and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last month criticised UK Government plans to issue as many as 100 new exploration licences, stating that while the North Sea remains part of the energy mix and a key component of the economy, “we need to make a careful, just transition away from oil and gas”. “The route to lower energy costs and to energy security is renewable energy,” she told the BBC. 

“The energy price crisis we are experiencing is a fossil fuel price crisis,” says Joffe, who highlights the lower costs of electriciy generation from wind and solar. “The best thing to do economically is also the best thing to do for the climate, which is to get out of fossil fuels as fast as we can.”

Professor Keith Bell, of the University of Strathclyde, agrees. Bell, co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre, says current conditions emphasise actions which were already necessary around the decarbonisation of networks and investment in infrastructure to serve the growth in renewables. He cites the French government’s emphasis on “energy sobriety” – reducing consumption by 10 per cent by 2024 – and says there’s “good reason” for everyone to cut their own usage. But, he says, “we have to invest in the means of being efficient”, which means outlay on changes for transport, heating methods and more. He suggests a street-by-street move to decarbonise buildings and improve consumer knowledge and trust, but says that will only work if we solve supply chain issues, which include addressing gaps in the availability of skilled workers.

turbines off Aberdeenshire

And then there’s power transmission to think about. In its Pathway to 2030 strategy, the National Grid ESO set out the blueprint for the network needed to facilitate the projected growth in renewables across the UK, including the Scottish Government’s 11GW offshore wind target. The plan includes accelerated delivery of connections in the north of Scotland, with subsea links, onshore reinforcements and an upgrade of the existing Beauly to Denny line all needed. Further investment will also be required to unlock the full potential of the ScotWind leasing round, which is expected to deliver almost 25GW of power across 17 projects – almost double Scotland’s current 13GW output from all renewable sources. Details of the network reinforcements that will take will be set out in the first quarter of next year. 

“There’s such a ramping-up of action across the sectors,” Bell says, and if that translates into speedy delivery “there are scenarios when we could envisage getting to the 2045 climate target more quickly.” Part of this, he says, could be achieved as a knock-on of the disruption of gas imports. “It forces us to reflect on it a bit more,” he says of where our power come from. “If part of that leads to a stronger commitment to using lower carbon sources of heating, then that’s good for the planet.”

The political commitment to meeting climate goals has, however, come into question following the confusion around whether or not Sunak would attend COP27. At the end of October, he gave “depressing domestic challenges” as his reason for staying in England, but by Halloween the position was “under review” amidst strong criticism, and come 2 November, Sunak had U-turned, saying he would indeed be there to “deliver on Glasgow’s legacy of building a secure and sustainable future”. 

The initial news of Sunak’s plans to miss the summit came after the Truss government said it was not the “right occasion” for King Charles – who in Glasgow called for the international response to the climate challenge to be akin to a “war-like footing” – to go to either. He instead arranged for a pre-conference reception at Buckingham Palace. After Sunak said he was out, Sturgeon’s team confirmed she was in, “given the vital importance of governments working together to tackle climate change”, while Tory MP Nadine Dorries said the PM was “wrong” and Alok Sharma, the UK’s COP26 president, told the Sunday Times that: “I understand that he’s got a huge in-tray of domestic issues that he has to deal with, but I would say that going to COP27 would allow for engagement with other world leaders... I think it does send a signal – if the prime minister was to go – about our renewed commitment on this issue.” 

Meanwhile, UK environment secretary Therese Coffey described COP27 as “just a gathering of people in Egypt” and not one of the “big political summits”, arguing that Sunak would demonstrate “global leadership”.

Sunak’s original position, and the noises made by the UK government, reflect “a fundamental misunderstanding about climate change,” Reay tells Holyrood. “Climate change is local and domestic as well as international.”

Reay has been working in climate science for 30 years. In the 1990s, he and his colleagues faced dismissal, scepticism and even ridicule for using science to call for action to reduce carbon emissions and save the planet from a catastrophic rise in temperatures. Today, he tells Holyrood, the criticism is often that he’s not sounding the alarm loudly enough.

Meanwhile, some of the students he meets at the University of Edinburgh, of which the ECCI is a part, come in with “climate anxiety”, aware of the urgency of the problem and finding the stark warnings in the data “really disempowering and worrying”. They counter that with the science of what can be done, he says. “Every bit of carbon we avoid emitting into the atmosphere helps us. It’s what gets me up in the morning. I think we have still got massive positive impacts we can make. This is the decade of action.”

However, Joffe is concerned about the impact on public attitudes of missed targets, of the potential that “people start switching off and the targets lose any value”. And he says there is a general “disconnect” between policy and rhetoric in the UK, describing the lack of a “serious” energy efficiency programme from the UK Government as “infuriating and unbelievable”. “If you look at it the way I look at it, the cost of moving from fossil fuels to renewables is now cost negative,” he says. “It’s now a cost saving as well as the stuff we needed to do anyway. 

“The challenge is you have got to pay the money up front to make the saving. Finding the cash now, whether that’s for solar panels as a householder or at government level for capital intensive solutions while paying out to support households in fuel payments is tricky.”

An Ipsos study in May found around 80 per cent of Scots are worried about climate change and what it will do to this country. Only one third of people said they were confident that world leaders are committed to tackling the impacts of climate change, while slightly more than half said they are confident that the Scottish Government and its agencies will do everything they can to help prepare Scotland for its impacts. While the level of trust might be an issue for Holyrood leaders, the level of public concern should surely be an argument for decisive action. Is climate scepticism, and the shrugging-off of the science, dead in Scotland? Joffe doesn’t think so. “Climate scepticism comes in waves,” he says.

“There’s always an argument, there will always be another argument – but I do think we are winning the argument.”

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