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European climate change strategy: how to make simple things complicated

    Addressing climate change, and thus reducing drastically greenhouse gas emissions, will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. The European Union is leading the way by committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 (from 1990 levels). To reach this community-wide goal, each member state has been assigned a greenhouse gas emissions reduction mandatory target.

    The problem however is that two other national mandatory sub-targets were set as well: a renewable energy production target and a renewable fuel use in transport target. For the UK this means that 15% of total British energy consumption and 10% of British transport energy consumption must come from renewable technologies by 2020.

    Despite their good intentions, these sub-targets are counterproductive. They may lead to a costly overreliance on renewable energy at the expense of other more cost-effective alternatives. Indeed, the vast bulk of environmental levies, which are expected to rise from £6bn this year to £13.6bn by 2020, is used to subsidise the development of renewable energy. No other greenhouse gas emissions reduction policy can rely on such wholehearted support. This situation is regrettable as those underrated policies, some of which are listed below, could make a difference.

    • Firstly, moving to relatively cleaner fossil fuel may significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Energy resources are general classified as either clean and renewable or fossil and polluting but the reality is more subtle. According to the IPPC, an international scientific body founded by the United Nations, gas-fired power plants emit 40% less CO2 per unit of electricity than their coal-fired equivalents.

      This means that replacing all British coal-fired power stations with gas-powered ones would have the same impact as building 2,683 additional offshore medium-size (3.6MW) wind turbines in terms of CO2 emissions reduction. To put those numbers into perspective, London Array, the biggest offshore wind farm in the world, has only 175 medium-size wind turbines.
    • Improving energy efficiency may also result in considerable gains. According to the International Energy Agency, up to 2/3rds of the energy generated by conventional fossil-fuelled power stations ends up as “waste” heat. Increasing the energy conversion efficiency or using the calorific energy for industrial or heating purposes could reduce our energy needs and therefore our greenhouse gas emissions.

    • Lastly, absorbing the greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere could be part of the solution. One way to do this is carbon capture and storage (CSS). This is where CO2 from gas and coal power stations is trapped and deposited where it will not enter the atmosphere, normally an underground geological formation. Despite this technology’s controversial financial viability, additional investments in R&D may turn out to be a sound policy. Less sophisticated methods are available as well. These include reforestation or promoting the use of agricultural land management techniques which increase the organic carbon level in soils.

    The above examples demonstrate that increasing renewable energy production is only one strategy, among many others, to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy will certainly play an important role in decarbonising our economies, but the precise extent of that role should be defined by cost-benefit analysis.

    National governments should be free to define the policy mix which enables them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the most cost-effective way. If the European Union really wants to be serious about climate change it should scrap any provision, such as those sub-targets, that increase the burden on taxpayers’ shoulders without yielding any significant environmental benefits. 

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