Nick Rosen |
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roger pielke
Pielke: clear thinking on carbon
…….what matters is our greedy, wasteful power companies.


OFF-GRID was a week ahead of other media in revealing  a major report which accused the UK government of setting unachievable and illusory carbon reduction targets. The report, from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers implies that the official targets would require the  building of 30 Nuclear power stations in Britain by 2015 (an impossibility), and IMEchE has called for a huge rise in off-grid energy production as the only sensible way to take a big chunk out of UK  carbon emissions.

The report is based on ground-breaking academic research which shows that the UK government is amongst the most farcical in the world when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. I MEchE says that unless the UK massively ramps up “distributed energy production” the country will only achieve 25% of its planned carbon reduction, at most.

The report echoes the announcement last month from the government’s own Committee for Climate Change (the CCC) that the aim of reducing carbon emissions 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 is never going to happen under current policies.

The  Kaya Identity

Both reports are based on the work of an obscure but brilliant American academic – Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado.  Pielke’s work unravels the UK Climate Change Act of 2008 by working backwards from the targets set by the CCC, shows that it would require a revolutionary change for the targets to be achieved.  Pielke’s work relies on the so-called Kaya Identity which sets out clearly the only variables that can influence carbon emissions.

The formula of the Kaya Identity  consists of two primary factors: economic growth (or contraction), typically represented in terms of GDP, and changes in technology, typically represented as carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP.

The Kaya Identity looks like this: Carbon dioxide emissions = population × per capita GDP × energy intensity × carbon intensity

Each of the two primary factors is typically broken down into a further two sub-factors. GDP growth (or contraction) is comprised of changes in population and in per capita GDP.
Carbon dioxide emissions per unit GDP is represented by the product of energy intensity, which refers to energy per unit of GDP and carbon intensity, which refers to the amount of carbon per unit of energy. Together the four factors of the Kaya identity explain the various influences that contribute to increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, as follows:

(1) carbon dioxide emissions = population × per capita GDP × energy intensity × carbon intensity

(2) P = total population

(3) GDP/P = per capita GDP

(a) GDP = economic growth (contraction) = P ×GDP/P = GDP

4) energy intensity (EI) = TE/GDP = total energy (TE) production/GDP
(b) carbon intensity (CI) = C/TE = carbon emissions/total energy production

(5) EI×CI =‘carbon intensity of the economy’= TE/GDP×C/TE = C/GDP.

“According to the logic of these relationships,” says Professor Pielke, “carbon accumulating in the atmosphere can be reduced only by reducing (a) population, (b) per capita GDP, or (c) carbon intensity of the economy.”

No political will for carbon reduction

Clearly there is no sign of population decreasing in Britain in the next ten years – quite the opposite – thanks to the huge rise in immigration and the higher birth rate of immigrants, forecasters are expecting double digit growth in the time period.

Nor is there any political will for a further fall in GDP (such as the one the UK  is currently experiencing). The credit crunch, followed by the bank bailout means that it would be quite impossible to sell a fall in economic output to the British people.  The vast debts accumulated when the country bailed out its banking system means that GDP  has to grow at above trend for the next decade.

That leaves only one other option – reducing the carbon-intensity of the economy – i.e. the rate at which carbon is created per unit of GDP. But it is literally impossible for the UK to achieve the rates of “decarbonisation” needed – rates of about 5% per year – however many wind farms it builds, and however many nuclear power plants it (realistically) commissions — hardly any of which will be in operation by 2020.  “We have the smallest shift to renewables in the EU,” says British legislator Alan Simpson, MP. “Ministers and Civil Servants are beholden to the Big 6 (power companies) to keep the lights on.

Big Power is the roadblock

The big power companies are allowed a return on investment of 25% according to Simpson, who is energy advisor to Britain’s Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband.  And carbon incentive schemes like the Renewables Obligation are “entirely skewed in favour of the big companies.” says Simpson.

So actually one of the main aims of policy should be to reduce total power consumption and clean up the power industry – which has a vested interest in UK PLC continuing to burn energy.

The CCC said: “In the 5 years 2003-2007, emissions reductions averaged 0.5% per annum: going forward, reductions of 2-3%pa will be required to meet the carbon budgets. A step change in the pace of reduction is needed.
Declining economic activity is likely to have produced an emissions cut of around 2% in 2008, and recession could reduce emissions in the first budget period by a total of 40-70 million tonnes. But recession induced reductions must not be confused with underlying progress, which could be undermined by a recession induced fall in the carbon price. The UK should now aim to overachieve emissions reductions in the first budget period.”

Distributed Energy Production

Keith Millard, President, Institution of Mechanical Engineers said: “the UK is at a key point in determining how to secure its future energy supplies.
“In the UK, 66% of our energy use is associated with electricity and heat sourced from central facilities via the grid.
“The emissions created by transporting this electricity and heat mean that there is a genuine benefit in looking for methods of generating and supplying energy nearer to its point of use.
“Distributed Energy Systems, are all about the local supply of electricity and heat which is generated on or near the site where it is used rather than centrally. This will help address a range of issues in addition to carbon reduction; these are energy costs, exposure to price volatility, distribution losses, and energy reliability. In addition, Distributed Energy Systems can provide opportunities for local economic development and provide energy for communities which are off the gas or electricity grids.

“A Distributed Energy System is a collection of energy sources, energy storage and distribution linked to local demand. They may contain a fossil fuel element (eg a gas-fired combined heat and power plant) but they will predominantly be based on local sustainable sources such as waste, geothermal, wind, biomass or, for coastal sites, wave and tidal power. They can truly be called a ‘system’ when they have some interdependency and indeed the demand they meet also has some form of control. The recognisable features are low transmission distances (and hence losses) and small scale plant interspersed in other local facilities.”
Roger Pielke said: “The approach to emissions reduction embodied by the Climate Change Act is exactly backwards. It begins with setting a target and then only later do policy makers ask how that target might be achieved, with no consideration for whether the target implies realistic or feasible rates of decarbonization. The uncomfortable reality is that no one knows how fast a major economy can decarbonize.

“The failure of the UK Climate Change Act is yet to be broadly recognized, but when it is, it will provide an opportunity to recast carbon policies in a more effective manner…. Setting targets and timetables for sectoral
efficiency gains and expansion of carbon-free energy supply would be a step in the right direction. Such a policy focused on incremental improvements in decarbonisation offers the only feasible approach to the challenge of mitigation.

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site

7 Responses to “Scrap carbon targets – they’re unachievable….”

  1. Keith Burnett

    For an MBA project I am trying to develop data for the number of off-grid power systems sold per year and a breakdown of use by area. Can anyone help me find this data? keith-suncoast@live.com

    Reply
  2. Copenhagen climate conference is doomed

    […] and for that to happen, either the population has to fall or GDP per capita has to fall (see our earlier article on this subject – […]

    Reply
  3. some guy

    Thank you for telling the truth about unreachable standards. Most people want only their side to be heard to drown out the other, not help change it.
    Let us see more people looking at ALL options, whether we like them or not, to work on them. You have to brainstorm with all ideas and see where it leads you. If you cut out ideas off the bat because you’re against them, you won’t be able to ever change them. This includes using what we have now in larger supply, (all coals, electric, gas, nuclear, oil) and what we have in mini units(hydro, solar, wind) save on your business energy bills with:http://www.www.off-grid.net

    Reply
  4. Vee Soar

    Until hell freezes over and governments realises that it is not continuous growth but contraction to a stable economy which is needed, we are on a slippery no hope slope.

    On the nuclear power front, it is not that bulding them is hugely environmentaly damaging,(although it is) nor that it will take too long before they become effective, (which it will) nor that it will cost huge amounts which could be put to better use and will also have to be heavily subsidised, nor that de-commissioning will be a nightmare and also hugely expensive, NO – the stark fact is that – like oil – the raw material of nuclear power has peaked and without fuel a nuclear power station is useless.

    Reply
  5. Li Ki

    Thank you for telling the truth about unreachable standards. Most people want only their side to be heard to drown out the other, not help change it.
    Let us see more people looking at ALL options, whether we like them or not, to work on them. You have to brainstorm with all ideas and see where it leads you. If you cut out ideas off the bat because you’re against them, you won’t be able to ever change them. This includes using what we have now in larger supply, (all coals, electric, gas, nuclear, oil) and what we have in mini units(hydro, solar, wind)

    Reply
  6. the1nigel

    While distributed energy is a good thing from an efficiency perspective, it doesn’t necessarily address where the energy is coming from, apart from saying it isn’t centralised. In the UK we don’t have sufficient energy density in our renewable resources to provide for the current energy demand – whether that is supplied by a centralised or decentralised distribution system. We simply don’t have the space to capture enough energy from low density wind, wave, solar resources for example, to take ‘ a sizeable chunk out of UK energy demand’. This means it is sensible to reduce the energy intensity of our activities (as the article above indicates) as far as possible, as well as not denying the need for some form of centralised distribution – which may be part of an HVDC network drawing solar electricity across Europe from North African deserts. Everybody agrees that which ever distribution network comes about the imperative is to decarbonise the energy supply, but it would be foolish to think that is possible in a country like the UK by relying solely upon our national renewable energy resources, without some form of energy imports. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the UK Carbon Reduction Strategy (which responded to the UK Climate Change Act) is that it places so much hope upon successfully developing CCS and building a fleet of new nuclear power stations to replace those which are going to be decommissioned in the next 15 years. It is hardly a recipe for sustainability, and unlikely to be possible in time to avoid the predicted ‘energy crunch’ in 10 years time!

    Reply
  7. Brendan

    Distributed energy production – Lets have more of it. We have recently invested in a small hydro 180kw. It’s taken us over 10 years to build and have had to borrow every last penny. The distribution company will only let us export 25kw. This may be increased in 2018.

    Reply

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