Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Optimism and Pessimism over Carbon Reductions

This afternoon I attended an interested debate on energy policy, held at Loughborough University as part of their Impact Festival for research.  Four leading academics working on topics such as carbon capture and storage, renewable energy generation, energy efficiency in the built environment and energy policy were brought together and lead by a chap from the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).  The ETI is a Government funded institute that encourages research and development of technologies intended to help the UK in its goal of saving 80% of its 1990  CO2 output level by 2050.

The debate was really interesting, with experts touching on a number of mechanisms that could help us reach this target, and with a bit of disagreement amongst them here and there.  Carbon Capture and Storage is seen as important given the amount of existing fossil fuelled power generation but the jury was out on whether the UK would be willing to fund it and whether China and India would have somewhere safe to put the captured carbon (one option being underground in old oil or gas wells, which isn't such a great idea in a geologically unstable area).  Some support for community involvement in renewable energy development (ie what has been happening in Germany and to some extent in the UK too).

At both the start and end of the debate they asked the audience (about 60-70 of us, a real mix of academics, students, industrialists and the general public) three questions.  Paraphrasing they were:

a) SHOULD the UK aim toward the low carbon target by 2050?
b) CAN the UK access technologies to allow the target to be reached?
c) WILL the UK actually make that reduction target.

You could answer "yes", "no" and "don't know" to each of these The answer to a) had a majority saying "yes", both at the start and end, so we mostly seemed to agree a low carbon Britain was something to aim for.  The answer to b) was a bit more mixed, with more folk seeming to move a bit more between start and end.  But the answer to c) was the most telling: the majority at the start thoughts "no" and that hardened at the end, mostly thanks to "don't knows" being converted to "no".
For what its worth, I said "yes" to a) and "don't know" to b) and c) at both ends of the debate, so I wasn't in the majority for either of the latter two questions.

But the majority answer was a great example of why politicians have a problem with supporting green policies.  They know that most folk think that these policies are a good idea, but the politicians also probably realise that most folk have already seen the mess governments (of all sizes and hues) have made of things like energy policies and now cynically don't think there's a hope of reaching the target.  The politicians thus feel free to mess around, cut and generally play short term politics with green policies and know that it isn't likely to rile people up as much as taxation, benefits or the NHS. Its a rather negative feedback loop of course, because this sort of action will just make the general public even more cynical about how likely we are to meet our targets.