Decarbonising the UK energy system - and wider economy - requires geographic insight.
Energy policy in the UK faces a ‘trilemma’: how can the UK decarbonise its energy system to meet its climate change targets, while ensuring a secure and affordable energy supply? The RGS-IBG’s policy forum on this topic sought to identify challenges, solutions, and ways forward on the issue.
Although the UK has committed to reducing its contribution to climate change, the UK energy system is still partly reliant on fossil fuels. Its legally-binding targets under the Climate Change Act require reductions greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels; under the Paris Agreement there must be a full-scale decarbonisation of the UK’s economy; and more recently, the Government has committed to net zero emissions by 2050. Meeting these targets requires large-scale transformations of the UK’s energy system. This process will also be geographical in nature, with implications for landscapes, communities and the places where we live and work across the country.
The ‘energy trilemma’ facing UK energy policy is to deliver energy that is at once secure, sustainable and affordable. Wider political changes including Brexit will also affect the structures and laws the UK can use to meet these challenges.
Joseph Dutton addresses the Policy Forum - (c) Debbie Castro
The energy system is inherently geographical; the current system is dominated by centralised points of large-scale transformation, connected spatially to sites of consumption through infrastructure that transports and transmits electricity and natural gas via the National Grid and the national transmission network.
The RGS-IBG convened an expert Policy Forum event in 2016 to consider challenges facing UK energy policy - the dimensions of the ‘trilemma’, how this could be delivered upon in the context of the UK’s vote to leave the EU (‘Brexit’) and the importance of scale when designing energy policy. This knowledge exchange event was organised in partnership with the UK Energy Research Centre. Over 100 professionals attended from the energy sector, academia, business and government.
The panellists were:
Joseph Dutton, University of Exeter
Professor Gordon Walker, Lancaster Environment Centre
Joan MacNaughton, World Energy Council
Clive Maxwell, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Dr Damian Carrington (chair), The Guardian
Professor Gordon Walker, Co-Director of the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University, discusses the transition to ‘local, smart and integrated’ energy systems at regional and community level and the importance of geographical approaches to understanding energy transformations.
Joseph Dutton, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, discusses the implications of Brexit for the UK’s energy system.
Panellists agreed that the UK has demonstrated progressive global leadership with respect to climate change and emissions reduction. Notably the 2008 Climate Change Act was ground-breaking as the first legally binding emissions reduction targets across the globe. Joan MacNaughton suggested the UK Government should receive credit for decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions since the 1990s, the panel identified emerging Brexit-related challenges; for example, economic uncertainty and the fall in the value of the pound delayed the construction of interconnection infrastructure with Iceland and Ireland, which would have delivered wind and geothermal energy. It was also unclear whether the UK would, said panellist Joseph Dutton, leave the single EU energy market against industry lobbying advice.
The panel identified some regressive steps in, with the UK falling from 9th to 11th since 2014 on the World Energy Council’s ‘trilemma index’ and being placed on ‘negative watch’, along with falling to 14th on the EY ‘renewables attractiveness index’ for inward investment. Joan MacNaughton particularly criticised the cancellation of the Government’s Carbon Capture and Storage commercialisation programme,
Other further challenges identified included decarbonising heating, buildings and transport. Professor Walker characterised the scrapping of the ‘Zero Carbon Homes Standard’ as an ‘appalling act of policy violence’, but was optimistic about wider change as energy systems become ‘more local, more smart and more integrated’. Gordon Walker argued that the UK needs to both decarbonise but also ‘de-energise’. The smart meter programme was hailed by Clive Maxwell, representing the UK Government as a discussant, as creating an integrated system which enables better balancing of electricity supply and demand. He also emphasised the need to understand consumer motivations to drive household-scale changes.
Overall the panellists derived several key points that policy should seek to address in the future. Policy should understand people as no longer passive consumers but ‘active policy takers’. Government must articulate and communicate its vision for the future of energy; policy must be better coordinated, with developing synergies between heat, power and transport a priority; there must be stability for investors laying down projects now with a lifespan of 20 – 40 years; Government policy must push in a consistent, progressive direction; and finally, the availability of skills to deliver energy system transformation must be considered.
This event took place on 29 November 2016 and was part of the Society’s 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum series, which brought together members of the geographical community, practitioners, policy-makers and other interested parties to discuss and debate, build professional networks, and encourage critical thinking and informed debate on some of the biggest issues and challenges facing the UK.
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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2019). Rescaling the UK energy system. Available at www.rgs.org/21CC/UKenergy. Last accessed on: <date>.
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