Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government has expressed concerns in an article published in The Observer, that in the current economic climate the government is making a U-turn on environmental commitments.
© UN Photo/R Kollar
Gordon Brown has called on the oil industry to come up with ideas for improving supplies as fuel costs soar and Business Secretary John Hutton announced the go-ahead for oil production to start in two new fields, West Don and Don South West. He also unveiled plans for new oil and gas fields to be carved out of unprofitable parts of around 30 existing fields, which could produce an additional daily production of 20,000 barrels.
Surely this approach does not match up to our goal to reduce CO² emissions? And as the credit crunch continues to have an impact on the economy, will there be a U-turn on our environmental commitments? There appears to be a danger that as economic conditions worsen, politicians are preparing to abandon the green strategies that until recently were close to the top of their agendas. This would be disastrous.
In 2003, Britain pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 as a contribution towards reducing global warming. Gordon Brown has since made it clear that we may need to go further and reach a 70 per cent to 80 per cent reduction by 2050. Our emissions of carbon dioxide currently match the European average, at 11 tons per person per annum. An 80 per cent reduction implies that we should fall to a level of 2.2 tons by mid-century, close to the average emissions per person in India today.
We need to manage this dramatic reduction in emissions while continuing the growth of our economy and assisting the developing world to manage the inevitable impacts of climate change. Over the past few centuries, we have fuelled our economic growth using carbon contained in geological deposits in the form of coal, oil and gas. This must end; to meet our obligations, we need a sustained and integrated approach to energy efficiencies and decarbonising our energy sources.
This will only be achieved if the overriding objectives around economic growth are recognised through policies to control inflation and to decarbonise the energy systems. Decarbonising the economy requires a new approach to urban planning, to transport, to lighting, to both new and existing building regulations and to energy production (both large- and small-scale). For energy production, the key criteria are security, zero or low carbon and price. The last of these is important, to maintain a competitive economy and to avoid fuel poverty.
The key global mechanisms urgently needed to deal with this are making carbon dioxide a tradeable commodity through the cap and trade process already initiated in the EU (so-called carbon trading), and offsets under the clean development mechanism to assist developing countries to decarbonise.
Nationally, other market mechanisms are required to encourage individuals to change their behaviour. We have recently dealt with other environmental market failures with remarkable success. Acid rain resulting from burning high sulphur content coal has virtually been eliminated; the loss of ozone from the stratosphere due to CFCs has been halted; pollution in our cities due to car exhaust fumes has been massively reduced. And with each of these measures, our economy and the well-being of our citizens have been improved.
The solutions lie with those businesses that recognise the opportunities these changes produce and with individuals pressing for reforms and overcoming short-sighted objections from government. It is in the time of economic austerity that finding ways to increase efficiency of energy usage becomes most important.
The current rising price of oil can be met by increasing supply, but the rising long-term trend in oil prices is likely to continue. This is driven by increased demand due to rising global prosperity and to the growing global population, the latter set to reach nine billion by mid-century. This could be offset by large-scale petrol production through alternative technologies. One of these is already in the marketplace. The conversion of coal to petrol was successfully developed commercially in South Africa during the oil embargo of the apartheid era and is still happening today. This Sasol process is no longer subsidised. It became commercially viable when oil reached $50 a barrel; at $130, it is a highly profitable venture. If the market perceives that high oil prices are here to stay, this technology will become a dominant source of petrol, but it fails on the need to decarbonise the economy.
An optional route, closely related, is to convert cellulosic farm products - leaves, stalks, but not edible products - into petrol. This is achievable by a catalytic process similar to the Sasol process and is also the subject of an alternative biotechnology approach. In the longer term, when our grid electricity sources have been decarbonised through a combination of renewables and nuclear energy, rail and road transport can be decarbonised by having both on the grid. Electric cars with rechargeable batteries will efficiently replace petrol-driven vehicles.
We can do it with modern technology and with the right incentives for the private sector. But it does require a clear exposition of the twin objectives of economic growth and carbon reduction, and investment by both the public and private sectors in new energy-saving and energy-producing technologies, stretching from research and development all the way to the marketplace.
We cannot abandon our commitment to green policies in the face of economic difficulty. Just as the need to control inflation is still critical at a time of economic challenge, so, too, is the need to reduce our carbon dependency.
Sir David King is the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government and the director of the new Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford.