Tough acts to follow

The first analysis by the body that reports to government on progress in tackling global warming makes uncomfortable reading for politicians and the public alike, reports Huw Morris.

Lord Turner does not strike the typical image of a hair-shirted environmentalist. Dubbed New Labour's favourite businessman, he is best known as chairman of the Financial Services Authority, which has had a key role in clearing up the fallout from the credit crunch.

However, it is in his role as chairman of the government's Committee on Climate Change that Turner is now ruffling feathers once again. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, his organisation must report to parliament on progress by the government and devolved administrations in reducing greenhouse gas emissions over five-year carbon budget periods.

Its first offering, published last week (Planning, 16 October, p1) sets out as stark a warning as any emanating from green activists. Turner acknowledges that the UK has very ambitious policies for cutting emissions, as demonstrated by the government's low-carbon transition plan issued in the summer. However, they are not enough. Indeed, what is required is not so much the step change originally billed by the committee but a doubling of the rate of emission cuts.

The committee's evidence is compelling and will make uncomfortable reading for ministers. Opposition politicians with one eye on next year's general election and potentially occupying the hot seat when future committee reports emerge will also struggle with its message. At the very least, the findings provide a timely shove ahead of the Copenhagen climate change conference in December.

Between 2003 and 2007, greenhouse gas emissions were falling at less than one per cent annually. They now need to fall by two per cent a year on average in the next five-year budget period. Thereafter, they need to fall by three per cent every year until 2050 to meet government targets. Reductions in emissions over the past two years are down to the recession rather than a sign of real progress in tackling the underlying problem, the committee warns.

Turner's prescription involves nothing less than changing the face of the country as we know it. However, not all of his proposals will be to environmentalists' liking. They involve wind turbines, nuclear power, clean coal, energy efficiency, road pricing and even electric cars. In energy, around 23GW of wind generation needs to be added. Alongside four clean coal demonstration plants and three nuclear power stations, early decisions are needed on transmission networks and investment to support significant increases in wind power generation in areas where the national grid is congested.

The committee's scenarios for emission cuts in buildings and industry include a 35 per cent reduction from homes by 2022 compared to 2007 figures and a 27 per cent fall from non-residential and industrial premises. This ambition implies a massive loft and cavity insulation programme, solid wall insulation and the replacement of 12 million inefficient boilers.

The committee's demands on the transport sector are particularly eye-catching. Transport emissions rose by 11 per cent between 1990 and 2007, during which car use rose by 20 per cent. Cars are now responsible for more than 131 million tonnes of carbon a year. To achieve a 25 per cent cut in emissions on 2007 levels by 2020, the committee first wants to see greater fuel efficiency.

The UK could slash carbon emissions from the current average of 160g per kilometre to 95g by replacing old models with energy-efficient engines. Another major element of this programme will be a new generation of cars. The committee wants to see 240,000 electric models and plug-in hybrids on the roads by 2015, rising to 1.7 million by 2020. This presents particular challenges for the planning and energy sectors. They will be expected to supply the right infrastructure to support a fundamental switch in motoring technology.

At present, the typical range for electric cars is around 128km. This could rise to around 400km as battery technology improves. The committee's scenarios envisage off-street home charging, which would serve up to three-quarters of car-owning households. The rest would be catered for by a mix of infrastructure comprising on-street, workplace or public charging in supermarkets and car parks.

The committee puts the price tag for supporting the roll-out of electric vehicles anywhere from a few hundred million to £1.5 billion between now and 2020. The government would have to stump up at least part of the bill. Although ministers have walked away from road pricing, the committee urges a rethink. Its tacit message is that such a policy should stay on the political agenda rather than going full steam ahead.

Elsewhere, by 2020 a total of 3.9 million drivers will need to be trained in "eco-driving" techniques such as accelerating and braking smoothly, turning off air conditioning and sticking to speed limits. The committee calculates that rigorous enforcement of the 70mph speed limit would save 1.4 million tonnes of carbon a year. Currently, around half of drivers exceed the limit.

The committee acknowledges that there are significant differences in emissions from different towns and cities, depending on urban density, the location of homes, workplaces and shops and the operation of public transport infrastructure. Policy, network management and pricing measures covering bus lanes, pedestrianisation and road pricing can all make a contribution.

The report's recommendations will be familiar to strategic planners. The committee favours urban regeneration over continued migration from towns and cities and mixed-use developments ahead of out-of-town shopping centres. It calls for investment in public transport as well as "smarter choice" policies to encourage people to travel sustainably.

In addition, the committee refers to the "specific opportunity" presented by the government's aim to build three million homes up to 2020. Thanks to the recession and the collapse in house building, this target has been quietly dropped by ministers. When it resumes, they will face pressure to ensure that housing growth takes place in urban areas rather than dispersed locations as far as possible to reduce emissions significantly.

While it acknowledges that "a high level of planning framework is in place" through PPS1, the committee is not confident that this fully tackles the risks posed by rising transport emissions or even the scope for reducing them in practice. Hence its call for the government to introduce an integrated land-use planning and transport strategy that stresses emission cuts.

Taken together, these measures pose an awesome task for any government. In the wake of the government's plan for a transition to a low-carbon economy, turning the rhetoric about being the global leader in tackling climate change into reality will be the toughest of tasks. Politicians of all persuasions are unlikely to have fully recognised the scale of the challenge. It is even more debatable whether the public at large quite appreciates the changes in lifestyle that lie ahead.

At the very least, those civil servants currently drafting forthcoming national policy statements now have another set of recommendations to digest. An extremely steep mountain needs to be climbed. The next committee report, scheduled for publication next June, is likely to be required reading for anyone gauging the UK's progress - or lack of it.

Meeting Carbon Budgets - The Need for a Step Change is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc

RECESSION MAKES DENT

Recessions can induce a false sense of security. This is the tacit warning from the Committee on Climate Change, which makes the obvious point that reduced economic activity means lower emissions.

While it is too early to come up with accurate figures, estimates for carbon emissions over the first budget period are at least 40 million tonnes down and could be up to 75 million tonnes lower than previously predicted. On the face of it, this makes targets easier to meet without taking tougher long-term measures.

However, the price of carbon is determined by the level of reduction required under the EU's traded sector emissions scheme. Lower emissions mean lower prices, probably around EUR20 per tonne of carbon dioxide in 2020 compared to previous estimates of EUR50 per tonne. The result is that there is less incentive for investment in low-carbon technology.

Renewable energy has also fallen victim to the credit crunch, with lenders restricting finance for onshore projects by independent developers as well as offshore schemes more generally. Up to 7GW of new wind generation projects with planning permission are yet to be built. These facilities are crucial in providing the 23GW of new capacity needed by 2020 to meet EU targets.

CARBON BLUEPRINT

- 8,000 more wind turbines will be required.

- Two new nuclear power stations must be built by 2020 and a third by 2022.

- Four coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage technology need to be provided.

- Around 1.7 million electric cars by 2020 as well as the infrastructure to support them.

- Government must consider imposing road pricing as an additional tax on motorists.

- The speed limit on all motorways should be strictly enforced and may need to be reduced to 60mph.

- Ten million lofts and 7.5 million cavity walls must be insulated by 2015.

- Another 2.3 million solid walls must be insulated by 2022.

- Carbon emissions from producing a kilowatt of electricity must fall from today's 540g to 33g in 2020.

- UK carbon emissions must fall from 2007's 636 million tonnes to 495 million tonnes by 2022.

Source: Committee on Climate Change


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