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The Great Debate

in association with

Durham University
Northumbria University
Newcastle University
one north east
Our Newcastle

the great northern debate

the great sustainable energy debate

The Great Debate in association with North East Forum for Climate Change Research, Durham University, Northumbria University, Newcastle University, one north east and Newcastle City Council

Tuesday, 7th October 2008

Jim Skea, Research Director, UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC)
Dermot Roddy, Sir Joseph Swan Institute for Energy Research
Kate Theobald, Sustainable Cities Research Institute

Professor Bob Evans

Caspar Hewett, Chair of The Great Debate, opened the proceedings by welcoming the audience and giving some background on the great northern debate project and The Great Debate 10th Anniversary. He then introduced the chair, Professor Bob Evans.

Bob Evans was Director of the Sustainable Cities Research Institute (SCRI) until January 2008, and is now a Professor working with colleagues in SCRI and the School of the Built Environment at Northumbria University on a number of research projects. He is author of many books, book chapters and articles on land use planning, sustainability, environmental policy, environmental justice and local governance. He is co-founder and co-editor of the international journal Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability.

Jim Skea Dermot Roddy Kate Theobald
The chair then introduced the topic for discussion and the speakers. Jim Skea is Research Director at UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC). He is known for research works in energy and environmental policies; sustainable development; climate change; environmental regulation and technical change; and business and environment issues. Dermot Roddy joined Newcastle University in August 2007 as Science City Professor of Energy. He is also Director of the Sir Joseph Swan Institute for Energy Research. Before coming to Newcastle University, Professor Roddy was Chief Executive of Renew Tees Valley Ltd, a company which he himself set up in 2003 to create a viable and vibrant economy in the Tees Valley based on renewable energy and recycling. Kate Theobald is a Reader in the Sustainable Cities Research Institute (SCRI). She joined SCRI in 2002 having previously worked as a researcher at two London universities. Kate’s particular interests are local governance in relation to sustainable development both in the UK and Europe (but also internationally), local responses to the climate change agenda, and public engagement in renewable energy technologies. Externally, Kate was Chair of the Planning and Environment Research Group of the RGS-IBG from 2004-2007 and is currently the Editorial Co-ordinator for the journal ‘Local Environment’.

Jim Skea opened by noting that the Climate Change Committee that advises the government, on which he sits, had just recommended an 80% cut in CO2 by 2050 – the most drastic cut proposed to date. His reasoning for a cut of this magnitude was based on the temperature increases we have already seen, and those we are likely to see in future. We are already 1ºC above pre-industrial levels. At 2ºC we are likely to see species loss and huge loss in agricultural productivity, while 4ºC would be very dangerous because of feedbacks in the climate system. Thus he argues for keeping carbon below 500ppm. This has a 50/50 chance of keeping the average temperature increase below 2ºC. It is an incredibly ambitious target.

According to Skea technology is the key to the carbon reduction required – what he described as the big ticket items, the main ones of which are
1) De-carbonisation of the electricity supply – thus a shift to nuclear and wind power and fossil fuels with carbon capture, and later also to photo-voltaics once the technology has improved sufficiently to make them feasible.
2) The capacity to bring down carbon emissions from buildings is great. Thus the aim would be to improve efficiency especially with new build. Solid wall insulation would play an important part in this.
3) In the transport sector we should move to smaller, more efficient vehicles – hybridisation could play a major role and in the long term a move to electric and hydrogen powered cars.

Skea’s focus was on policy and he made it clear he was thinking long term – the year 2020 and beyond. He referred to the Stern Review, discussing the economics of climate change and how pricing of CO2 emissions could play its part, using the market, especially for the big players such as the utilities. However, he also felt that innovation in technologies would play an important part in carbon reduction. Overcoming all the barriers, would, for Skea, mean developing new institutional frameworks.

He also discussed the energy security issue: “keeping the lights on,” drawing attention to the multi-dimensional nature of the issue. He highlighted the tension between two key objectives – aiming for reliability of supply while keeping an eye on the geopolitical side, for example the danger of ‘Putin turning off the gas taps.” Thus for him there needs to be some alignment between geopolitical issues and efficiency – especially with regard to nuclear power.

Dermot Roddy focused in his introduction on the different forms of energy and on what balance of them we might aim for. He pointed out that renewables are not a feasible options at the moment we can only expect to get 2.4% of our energy requirement from them as things stand. On the other hand, we have approximately 250 years worth of coal still to rely on.

He gave a brief view of energy use elsewhere in the world. China at present gets ? of its energy from coal, and this is unlikely to change very quickly. As Roddy put it, most of our CO2 ends up in China. Canada has about 900 years worth of coal. Australia, a heavy coal user, is targeting a 60% reduction in emissions by 2050, primarily through carbon capture. Touching on biofuels, Roddy pointed out that they have now become controversial, because of the pressure on developing countries to grow them as cash crops rather than grow much needed food. He pointed out that 1.66 billion people in the world have no access to electricity.

Roddy argued that countries need to play to their strengths, thus for the UK clean coal technologies, offshore wind and use of the tidal stream are good options. In the tropics large scale deployment of solar energy makes most sense.

Considering the CO2 reductions required by the UK to hit proposed `sustainability targets, Roddy proposed a roughly even mix (providing one sixth each) for the UK from 1) reduction form clean coal 2) from offshore wind 3) correct use of biofuels 4) reducing demand 5) marine technology and 6) solar.

He posed some key questions: Should we be picking winners? What should we be picking on a large scale? and what part should demand management play in hitting targets?

Kate Theobald approached the topic from an entirely different angle, with an emphasis on behaviour and responsibility. She was interested in how progress has been associated with consumption historically and drew attention to how people are moving towards feeling more responsible to our environment. She has a particular interest in housing and what part available technology and policy can play in improving energy efficiency, but most of all she wanted to highlight how we consume energy, that is, our behaviour as individuals. She argued that we are guilty of using too much even though we know it is a bad thing. She asked how we convince ourselves to change our behaviours. For her the energy issue is about lifestyles.

Theobald thought that social housing and landlords could have a big influence on energy consumption through increased use of renewables and improved efficiency. Retrofitting of old housing stock with solar panels, double glazing and other technologies. However, for Theobald, regardless of whether or not there is sufficient energy, or if housing stock is carbon neutral, we still need to get people to reduce their energy consumption – thus she closed by explicitly telling the audience “you need to change your individual consumption behaviour.”

A series of wide ranging questions and points from the audience followed.

One participant made the point that people need a framework from government on how to reduce their carbon footprint, drawing attention to peculiar pricing structures that are such that halving gas consumption only results in a third off the bill.

The question was raised to what extent economic development can be equated with CO2 production. Jim Skea pointed out that development in countries such as China and India need not follow that same path as development in the West in terms of carbon production.

Philip Lowe, speaking from the floor, made the point that there is a distinct absence of radical institutional change on anyone’s agenda, but rather a “technology busting dynamic.” He argued that intergovernmentalism is necessary to deal with the energy question, especially in the context of climate change, calling for something not far short of global government. He felt that much of the discussion focussed on consumerism, what he described as an “ameliorist consumerist agenda,” which involved meddling with the current system but contained no suggestion of radical change, that is lacking any notion of social change. Lowe argued that carbon trading is an important new institution and questioned why small scale carbon accounts could not be set up as well as the very large scale accounts currently being introduced globally.

Mark Harrop wanted to know whether “sustainable energy” will be able to deliver. By this he specifically meant renewable sources such as wind farms. He made the point that development and innovation will deliver … we should not be cowering. He also pointed out that climate has always changed and that this should not hamper us.

Dermot Roddy responded that the planet will survive all sorts of things, but we won’t. He argued that the main problem with renewables is intermittency. Thus one major problem in the UK is the way the national grid was designed – it is not conducive to making the most of intermittent and distributed energy sources. However, we have what we have. What we need is large scale, heavy duty electrical storage.

Jim Skea argued for a balance between market approaches and state driven approaches. He had no doubt that many changes will be seen over the next few years in the way electricity is organised.

The point was made from the floor that the government’s national statistics on energy consumption show that electricity use has rocketed in recent years while gas use has dropped. This is probably due to plasma televisions and other high consumption articles that have become more readily available.

One participant mentioned the Transition Town Movement, which he described as “some sort of response to the problem.” He asked what we can reduce now and argued that it would be good for individuals to work with government. One suggestion was that each individual should have an expectation of 2 tonnes of carbon which they can use up in any way they please – by flying, driving etc. Another participant wondered why progress should be related to consumption at all, arguing that where behaviour changes are needed is with governments and leaders. A climate change war is a terrifying prospect, what we want is a climate change peace.

Dermot Roddy agreed that the link between progress and consumption is mystifying – he could not understand why gross domestic product going up is seen as a good thing, since all that means is that we are spending more on things. He expressed concerns about nuclear power, arguing that focussing on nuclear energy sends out the wrong message to the rest of the world – we do not want nuclear capability in unstable countries and therefore should steer away from it here.

Jim Skea was optimistic that the amount of electricity used by technological devices comes down over time, and this will help the overall picture. However, he was not optimistic about changing human nature and thus need to appeal to self interest.

Kate Theobald closed by stating that local government should have much more support from central government.

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