Friday, 18 October 2019

Even more important than Brexit

I bring you just a little bit of good news – and I think it’s a lot more important than the latest Brexit breakthrough. (Which, of course, may turn out not to be a breakthrough at all, but merely another step along the rocky path to, well, who knows where it leads?)

The good news, such as it is, is this: according to the environmental news website Carbon Brief, the UK generated more energy from non-carbon sources – windfarms, solar panels, biomass and hydro-electric plants – in the third quarter of 2019 than the entire combined output from coal, oil and gas power stations.

It was, Carbon Brief reports, the first-ever three-month period during which this was achieved since the UK’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882, and it marks another symbolic milestone in the transformation of the country’s electricity system over the past ten years.

This is the break-down: 40% of electricity generation came from renewables (20% from wind, 12% from biomass, and 6% from solar). Thirty-nine per cent came from coal, oil and gas, nearly all of it from gas. The remaining 19% came from nuclear.

And that, I’m afraid, is the end of the good news. Because we’re still off track to meet the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets, despite the government’s target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. (The Extinction Rebellion protesters want to reach net-zero by 2025, which unfortunately looks even less likely. As it happens, I have a lot of respect for the protesters, although I’m not convinced that targeting public transport during the morning rush hour is the best way to win friends and influence people.)

One of the biggest problems we face is that energy efficiency improvements are being introduced far more slowly than is necessary if the net-zero carbon target is to be met. Emissions from cars and other road vehicles? Nowhere near good enough. Loft insulation improvements? Likewise.

And as winter edges ever closer and we begin to think about turning on the central heating again, let us remind ourselves that 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our home heating systems. According to a report launched this week by the climate change minister Ian Duncan, continuing to heat our homes with fossil fuels threatens fatally to undermine the government’s carbon reduction targets. If we are really serious about meeting those targets, something like 20,000 homes per week will have to be converted to low-carbon heating before 2050. That is, to put it mildly, one hell of an undertaking.

And – how can I put this? – I’m afraid there’s more. A team of Russian scientists have reported finding the most powerful ever methane jets shooting up from beneath the bed of the East Siberian Sea. (Methane is an even more damaging greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.)

The emissions are being fuelled by the melting of permafrost due to higher global temperatures, and Professor Igor Semiletov of Tomsk Polytechnic University has reported that whereas methane levels found on previous research trips to the area were around 3, 4 or 5 parts per million, on his most recent trip, he measured levels of up to 16 parts per million.

The Guardian published what it called an ‘environmental pledge’ this week, saying that the ‘escalating climate crisis is the defining issue of our lifetimes and that the planet is in the grip of an emergency.’ I agree.

Yes, of course Brexit is important. But the climate emergency is far more important.

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