Setting the scene: energy scenarios and sustainability

Guest blog from Environment and Life Sciences Green Impact team.

1.  Background

 Recent Energy Outlook 2035 predicts growth in global energy consumption of 41% between 2012 and 2035 and whilst this represents slower growth than over the last 20 years it still raises the prospect of significant environmental, economic and technical challenges to future energy supply (BP, 2014). The majority of this growth is predicted in emerging economies with growth in developed economies forecast to decline in the latter years of the period. Fossil fuels are expected to continue to dominate the global energy mix with gas demand growing at the fastest rate with early growth in coal consumption, predominantly in China and India, followed by much slower growth towards the end of the forecast period. Oil is expected to be the slowest growing primary fuel over the period. Similarly a recent report by Shell (2013) refers to significant energy growth driven by growing world populations and prosperity, which has a significant impact on energy availability and resulting greenhouse gas emissions associated principally with growth in coal consumption. BP (2014) concludes that future energy challenges relate to three main questions:

Are energy resources sufficient to meet growth in demand and are resources available?

  • Are energy resources sufficient to meet growth in demand and are resources available?
  • Are energy resources secure and reliable?
  • Are current and future energy choices sustainable?

The authors conclude there are sufficient resources, which can be made available through development of new energy sources (e.g. shale gas and oil tar sands) and energy efficiency improvements. Energy intensity of economic growth has declined over the long term with a downward trend since 1970. However the situation with regard to security and reliability is much more mixed with improvements in areas that are resources rich but concerns for those countries reliant on imports and the fluctuating global energy market. The principal concern with regard to sustainability is the carbon intensity of economic growth measured by both total emissions and per capita emissions of greenhouse gases; while carbon intensity is expected to decline this will occur much less rapidly than the decline in energy intensity.

Recent evidence (IPPC, 2013) shows a warming of the earth’s atmosphere of 0.85oC over the period 1880 to 2012. In tandem, atmospheric concentrations of the principal anthropogenic greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) have increased from pre-industrial levels by 40%, 150% and 20% respectively. Recent reports suggest that CO2concentrations have exceeded 400 ppm compared to pre-industrial levels of 281 ppm. The IPPC (2013) estimates mean global temperature changes to the end of the century between 1 and 3.7oC depending on energy and carbon intensity of the economy, together with the rate of population growth and economic prosperity. Climate change presents significant environmental, technical and policy challenges.

In addition to global pollution problems, combustion based energy generation and consumption (power and heat supply and motor vehicles) leads to emissions of air quality pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and sulphur dioxide. These pollutants compromise air quality and give rise to both human health and environmental impacts. Pope et al. (2006) discuss both the long term and short term effects on cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality. A very recent study by Cesaroni et al. (2014) demonstrated that long term exposure to PM2.5 is associated with increased risk of coronary events and that this association conditions to be significant at levels of exposure below current European Limit Values. Many air pollution problems that affect public health in more economically developed countries are associated with emissions of substances (mainly NOx and PM) from motor vehicles.

2. Energy, Environmental & Sustainability Targets

The UK was the first nation in the world to establish legally binding carbon budgets and associated targets through the Climate Change Act 2008. The long term target is to reduce emissions by at least 80% of the 1990 baseline by 2050 with incremental reductions achieved through 5-year rolling programmes with the aim of achieving a halving of emissions during the fourth period (2023-27). The UK is also committed to targets to achieve 15% of energy demand from renewable sources by 2020 from a 2005 baseline of 1.5% under the Renewable Energy Directive (2009/28/EC), which is part of a wider EU climate and energy package to achieve 20% reductions in EU greenhouse gas emissions, 20% of energy consumption from renewable sources in the EU and 20% improvement in the EU’s energy efficiency by the target date of 2020. There are a number of mechanisms in place to support achievement of these targets including emissions trading, financial support and incentives for both large and small scale renewables, reform of energy markets and environmental regulation of industry and the energy sector. However recent debate in the UK has highlighted the conflict between progressive environmental policies and their supposed economic effects, with George Osborne reputedly opposed to carbon targets because of the potential impact on energy prices and has called for 2020 targets to be delayed to 2030 (The Guardian, 2013). During the last 10 years wholesale oil prices have doubled while wholesale gas prices have increased by a third with wholesale electricity prices having increased modestly when policy intervention costs are excluded (National Grid, 2013). Osborne has subsequently secured a review of the fourth carbon budget for the period 2023-27, which will take place during spring 2014. The need to relax the targets has recently been challenged by the Committee on Climate Change (2013) which argues that the current targets offer significant cost savings of up to £200 billion.

Current energy statistics for the UK are published by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) both quarterly and annually. Over recent years the UK has been increasingly reliant on imports of primary fuels including coal, petroleum and natural gas and in 2012 net imports accounted for 43 per cent of energy used (McLeay, Harris &Annut, 2013). This is despite potentially large reserves of coal and onshore shale gas reserves. In the UK transport (36%) and domestic (29%) consumption account for two-thirds of final energy consumption with the other third associated with industrial and commercial consumption (McLeay, Harris &Annut, 2013). Approximately 70% of electricity generation is derived from fossil fuel combustion with 39% from coal combustion and 28% from gas combustion in 2012 although these figures will vary between years depending on the relative costs of fuels (McLeay, Harris &Annut, 2013); these choices clearly have environmental implications with coal producing higher greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy generated. In 2012 renewable energy sources accounted for 11.4% of electricity generation or around 2% of final energy consumption (McLeay, Harris &Annut, 2013).

It is clear that future energy demand and supply represents a major economic, social and environmental challenge. Rising global and regional populations together with increasing prosperity in emerging economies will place greater demand on available resources. While technological advances will enhance human’s ability to secure new sources of fossil energy (e.g. shale gas and oil tar sands) the environmental implications may undermine the argument for exploiting these ‘new’ sources of energy.

Low Carbon Infrastructure

The plan would entail major government investment in improving energy efficiency of current building stock through refurbishment and retrofitting of suitable technologies. The plan will also see expansion of renewable energy technologies for the production of electricity with the government providing financial support for both established technologies (e.g. wind turbines, small scale PV solar) and more capital intensive relatively novel technologies (e.g. tidal and wave). The plan sees modest improvements in vehicle technologies towards low carbon through market forces.

Low Carbon Infrastructure + Transport

This plan provides government funding for green transport networks to assist modal shift from private to a public transport system based on green technologies (e.g. electrical vehicles, biodiesel, biomethane). The plan promotes behavioural change as an important mechanism for greening society.

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