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Lord Turnbull: The Energy Bill’s Shaky Foundations

Lord Turnbull, The House Magazine

The Energy Bill has passed through the House of Commons with strong support – indeed most of the challenges were to make the commitments to carbon reduction more ambitious. The purpose of the bill is to implement the statutory duty in the Climate Change Act to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. Allowing for growth, this is equivalent to reducing CO2 per unit of GDP by over 90% – in the next 40 years reversing 250 years of exploitation of fossil fuels.

The Bill is based on a number of assumptions. The first of these is already dead. When the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 the expectation was that it would be part of an international agreement. There is no international agreement, nor will there be. China and India have made it clear that they will not accept international constraints on their ability to use fossil fuels to take their people out poverty and without their agreement the US will not sign up. Pressing on unilaterally will damage the UK economy and have no impact on the climate.

Other assumptions, if not dead, are now looking distinctly shaky. The objective of de-carbonisation by 2050 is based on a view that by the end of this century global temperatures will be 2-4°C higher. Over the past century the increase was less than 1°C which was probably beneficial to the planet. There is no sign of any acceleration to a new trend of 0.3°C per decade. Indeed, the last 15 years have seen no warming so that the trajectory we have seen has fallen below the projections of nearly all the major climate models. This has prompted a reconsideration of whether climate sensitivity, i.e. the relationship between CO2 and temperature, is as high as assumed.

It is this false sense of urgency that has justified the crash programme of decarbonisation, many of whose components are ineffective or even harmful – diverting arable land to grow bio-fuels, converting power stations to burning wood and building huge wind farms which depend on fossil fuel generation to back them up. Freed from imaginary deadlines, we can focus on sensible no-regret policies like energy efficiency, technological development, building the resilience of our economy and its ability to adapt.

Finally there is the assumption that the costs of fossil fuels will rise sharply, which has been thrown into doubt by the new technologies for exploiting shale gas and oil.

Perhaps the most shameful element of the current policies is its inequity. I find it surprising that the Liberal Democrats in particular, who have made so much of bringing the interests of the poor into the Coalition programme, should turn a blind eye to the transfers from poor to rich. The subsidies for those who have the land and buildings on which to install solar panels and wind turbines are paid for by the generality of citizens. If one lives in a tower block in Kennington the opportunities for accessing these subsidies are zero.

Sadly when the Energy Bill comes to the Lords the discussion in the Commons will be repeated, with calls for going further outweighing calls for a rethink. The premise of alarmism will prevail. We will greatly miss Lord Reay’s critical analysis of wind power.

The House Magazine, 25 June 2013