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Last edited 06 Jan 2021
What has the UK done about carbon reduction since the Paris Agreement?
Philip Pascall, Chair of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Energy Expert Panel, considers the UK’s progress since the Paris COP21 agreement – the topic of discussion at an ICE evening event on 23 November 2016. This article was originally published by ICE as What has the UK done about carbon reduction since the Paris Agreement? on 28 October 2016.
The UK hasn't ratified the COP21 treaty. The Department for Energy & Climate Change (DECC) has been dissolved. As has the Energy and Climate Change Committee (ECCC), which recently pointed out that the UK is likely to miss 2020 renewable energy targets. Clearly, the UK energy policy vacuum remains and there are also concerns about affordability and security of supply.
On the positive side it looks like the new nuclear station at Hinkley is finally going ahead, China leads the world in the development of renewables (followed by the US), and both China and the US have ratified COP21.
And at ICE, climate change issues are at top of our energy agenda. Our evening event on 23 November 2016, What does the Paris Agreement on climate change mean for civil engineering? will take a close look at what the UK needs to do.
One reason given was that EU member states wish to ratify the treaty in a co-ordinated fashion and to set national targets first. However, the EU as a whole plus seven member states have signed, so why is the UK hesitant? Presumably, uncertainty about the UK's position post-referendum.
 Government department changes
The best way to look at this is that energy has to be integral with business and industrial strategy. I just hope that's the real reason. If it isn't, it will be even harder to achieve climate change goals.
Whatever the motivation behind the departmental changes, Brexit is a massive diversion causing a hiatus across all departments, pending recruitment, re-organisation and working out what Brexit actually means.
At the recent ICE debate This house believes that the UK energy industry is not fit for purpose, there was a majority in favour both before and after the speakers' presentations and Q&A. But the message was clear: we can be fit for purpose and we must make the changes.
To start with, we should help clients set the right brief with the objectives of zero carbon and sustainable energy – that we will not emit any CO2 emissions. The challenges are massive and we need to get on with it.
 2020 renewable energy targets
In its excellent report, the ECCC says that on its current course the UK will fail to achieve its 2020 renewable energy targets (that 15% of all energy, 10% of transport fuels and 12% of heat must come from renewable resources). Poor progress on heat and transport, notwithstanding better progress on the 30% target for electricity generation, will most likely result in failure to meet the overall target.
These interim targets are legally binding along with an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. The report contains recommendations that government should follow – including, notably, the adoption of a whole systems approach.
In 2011, government published The Carbon Plan which set out how the 'UK will achieve decarbonisation …… to make the transition to a low carbon economy while maintaining energy security, and minimising costs to consumers ….' through a series of carbon budgets.
That doesn't mean it has to be totally rigid. Circumstances change, so adjustments – "light touches on the tiller" – will be necessary. These can be prescribed according to progress across a range of parameters. F or example, subsidies for solid wall insulation could be increased or decreased to keep within the range of expected number of installations shown in Chart 1 of The Carbon Plan [page 6]:
This fact is graphically illustrated by massive peaks (between 29 and 40 pence per kWh cf an average of about 6.4p/kWh) in the wholesale price of electricity on three successive days in September 2016:
Consumers, both domestic and industrial, may regard energy prices as being high. The media gives prominent exposure to alleged overpricing, attracting customers with low tariffs that go up in time, and the difficulty that many families on low incomes have in affording the electricity and gas they need.
The last of these at least is genuine. However, fossil fuel prices are at such a low level that investors are not even proceeding with combined cycle gas turbine stations which are probably the cheapest and quickest to build, and most profitable, of any type of power station.
As described very well by Peter Dixon in 'Electricity – we're having the wrong conversation' in Infrastructure Intelligence, we need to be prepared to pay more. The much-debated Contract for Differences strike price for Hinkley Point C is fair.
We must look for more ways to address all three prongs of the trilemma.
I believe that this is the area where engineers should have the greatest influence and effect. PAS 2080 provides a clear process, with metrics. We should follow its guidance on new projects to the maximum extent possible and encourage our clients to do likewise. Reducing cost and increasing value are strong incentives for any business or investor.
We "just" need to show how it's done.
 Follow the debate
- Is it possible to balance a sustainable environment with a sustainable economy and a sustainable society?
- What will the UK energy mix look like in 2050?
- Should we stop floods or try to live with them? Is water a problem or an opportunity? How can we collaborate to overcome water scarcity?
- Can the UK lead the world in technology use to make cities more liveable and more sustainable?
- How can we boost skills and capacity to solve these problems?
 Find out more
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Carbon plan.
- Climate Change Act.
- Climate change science.
- Climate change.
- Emission rates.
- Energy targets.
- Happold lecture on climate change.
- Helping achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
- ICE articles on Designing Buildings Wiki.
- Institution of Civil Engineers.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC.
- Kyoto Protocol.
- PAS 2080.
- National Infrastructure Commission.
- Renewable energy.
- Solid wall insulation.
- The Future of Electricity in Domestic Buildings.
- UK decarbonisation.
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