If Great Britain wants to keep its carbon emission reductions on course, it’s going to need to make some significant policy changes.
That’s the word from a new report just released by London’s Imperial College. The researchers ran models of six likely scenarios for how Britain’s economy and carbon emissions could behave under current policy. The country’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has recommended that Britain get its emission rate — the amount of carbon dioxide released for every unit of energy produced — down to 50 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour (gCO2/kWh) by 2030. But in all six scenarios, the rate remained at or above 100 gCO2/kWh in that year.
The problem is the country’s coal generation. Great Britain has already closed 8 gigawatts (GW) of coal power, leaving 19 GW spread between nine plants. And in every scenario, at least 5 GW of coal-fired power remained in operation in 2030. These coal plants were mostly built back in 1960s and 1970s. They tend to be extremely dirty and inefficient, and rank among some of the biggest carbon emitters in all of Europe. The power sector also accounts for about half of the country’s total emissions.
In 2008, Great Britain passed the Climate Change Act, which established the CCC and legally committed the country to getting its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions down to 80 percent below their 1990 levels by 2050. Subsequent legislation has created various tools for getting there, and empowered the Secretary of State to lay down an official target for the country’s power sector in 2016. For the moment, however, the CCC’s recommendation is the best goal post available.
The primary policy for hitting it is the European Union’s (EU) Emissions Trading System (ETS), a cap-and-trade program that includes Great Britain. But the country also has a Carbon Price Support (CPS) law, which sets a floor for how low the price of emissions on the ETS can drop within Britain’s market, and which rises over time. There are also regulations on emissions set by the EU as a whole, along with Britain’s own emissions performance standard (EPS) — which sets a rate limit for carbon emissions, but only for newly built power plants.
The report concluded that the ETS coupled with the CPS are the two main policies that will help Britain hit its 2030 target. But between the global recession and other circumstances, the ETS has struggled in recent years to keep the price on emissions high enough to incentivize meaningful reductions. That’s where the CPS comes in, as it’s currently set to raise the price floor to approximately $118 per metric ton of CO2 by 2030. But even on that course, the emission rate only gets down to about 130 gCO2/kWh. “The modeling also demonstrates that the amount of coal operating during the 2020s is primarily a function of the CPS, in the absence of other policies to constrain the use of existing coal fired power stations,” the report said.
Observers believed the raining plants would close in the 2020s — an “unwise” assumption according to Dr. Rob Gross, the study’s lead author. “With the UK’s existing suite of energy policies, in every instance [of the modeling] coal still played a role in generating electricity and 2030 emissions targets were missed,” Dr. Gross said.
The report suggests tightening the carbon price — either through changes to the CPS or by lobbying for changes to Europe’s ETS — as the best way to get Great Britain’s emission reductions back on course. Proposals have been put forward for tightening up the cap on emissions in the ETS, and the British government has itself put out a position paper laying out how EU policymakers could avoid another price collapse.
The discussion is particularly crucial given that the EU recently struck an initial deal to get its collective GHG emissions down to 40 percent below their 1990 levels by 2030, and the ETS will be critical tool in that effort as well.
The Imperial College paper also recommended using a payment scheme already in place to further subsidize and encourage renewable and low-carbon energy, as well as extending the country’s emissions performance standard to cover existing power plants as well. The government has considered moves in the latter direction in the past, but has so far rejected them.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom branch of WWF, the environmental charity that commissioned the report, has calculated that keeping even one coal-fired plant online in 2030 would provide only three percent of the country’s electricity while using up half its allowable carbon budget.
“Britain is in danger of massively overshooting its carbon-emission target for electricity if we fail to close coal,” said Jenny Banks, an energy and climate change specialist at WWF.
As for the British government, a spokesman for the Department for Energy and Climate Change insisted that any coal power which isn’t fitted with carbon capture and storage technology “is expected to account for only around 1 per cent of total electricity generation in Great Britain in 2025, and to continue to decline thereafter.”