01 October 2010

Recarbonization of the UK Economy

If you want to focus on a single metric that tells you how fast an economy is decarbonizing (that is, reducing its ratio of carbon dioxide emissions to GDP) then you should focus on changes in the proportion of energy consumption from carbon neutral sources.  For any nation to hit emissions reductions targets, and the world to hit low stabilization targets the simple mathematics indicate that annual decarbonization rates will have to exceed 5% in most national economies.

By the metric the UK is presently moving in the wrong direction, according to a story in the Guardian yesterday:
The UK has suffered a second fall in renewable energy production this year, raising concern about the more than £1bn support the industry receives each year from taxpayers.

The drop in electricity generated from wind, hydro and other clean sources in the first half of 2010 could also be a setback to the coalition government's promise that the UK could help lead a "third industrial revolution" and create a low-carbon economy.

The DECC today said lower than expected wind speeds and rainfall led to a 12% fall in renewable electricity generated between April and June, compared to the same period in 2009. This setback follows a smaller but still notable decline between January and March, again compared to last year.

With a sharp drop in output from nuclear power stations as well, greenhouse gas emissions from each unit of electricity generated will inevitably have risen, at a time when the UK has pledged to cut such pollution, and is pressing other countries to do the same.

The renewable energy figures are likely to prompt criticism of the government's energy policies from all sides. Supporters want ministers to increase funding for green industry so more wind farms are built, reducing the risk of seasonal set backs; critics will say the government should instead increase support for energy efficiency, nuclear power or cleaner forms of burning fossil fuels.
The changes in the UK energy mix suggest that the economy has become more carbon intensive as gas has increased at the expense of nuclear power:
The latest energy statistics for the second quarter of 2010 show total energy production in the UK was 9.2% lower than the same period last year, while final energy consumption was 1.8% higher. Among the different fuels, output from oil and coal fell, while only gas increased its output, by 7.1%. It was a similar picture for electricity alone: coal power stayed steady at about 23% of electricity supplied, nuclear output fell by 23% to 15.8%, and gas production rose by more than 10% to over half of all electricity.
It is not just the UK that is recarbonizing, but the US as well.  What is remarkable is that these trends have been foreseeable for a while.  Even so, the hold of magical solutions remains strong.