Page last updated at 01:17 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

UK climate targets 'unachievable'

By Matt McGrath
Science reporter

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UK government plans to make carbon emission cuts of 80% by 2050 are physically impossible to achieve, according to a new analysis.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers says there is not enough time or capacity to build the wind turbines and extra nuclear power stations required.

Under current plans, the targets will not be met until 2100, it argues.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change accused the institution of having a "can't do, won't do attitude".

IMeche also called for a major investment in geo-engineering.

It is calling for a "war" on climate change with a beefed up government department in charge.

It could also mean the introduction of some form of carbon "rationing" for individuals to make people aware of how much energy they are consuming.

The UK's Climate Change Act passed into law in 2008, putting a legal imperative on the government to cut emissions by 80% of their 1990 levels by 2050, with a mid-term target of 34% cuts by 2020.

But the report investigates how practical these targets are to reach and concludes that they cannot be met with the current approaches to cutting carbon.

They would not, in fact, be reached until the year 2100.

Competition for resources

According to the analysis, even if the UK managed to cut the demand for energy by 50%, it would still require an extra 16 nuclear power stations and 27,000 wind turbines by 2030 to be sure of hitting the target.

Dr Tim Fox is head of environment and climate change at the Institution. He says that the problems of building the infrastructure haven't been thought through.

"We'll be competing for the engineering resources to deploy those wind farms in a global market where lots of other nations are trying to de-carbonise at the same time.

"The most current analysis shows that by 2013 we won't have enough of the specialist construction vessels to assist in the construction of the offshore wind farms.

"Not only that, but by 2016 there's not enough turbine manufacturing capacity in the world to be able to deliver the turbines to all the projects that need them at that time.

"We've done an assessment of the level of kit that is needed and it is at a level of building and construction and deployment that is unprecedented in modern times.

"We need the government to adopt an engineering programme management type of approach laying out the best combination of solutions, rather than the current approach which is to almost blindly assume that mitigation can be achieved regardless of whether in practical terms it can be delivered on the ground."

Back to rationing?

According to the Institution, this co-ordinated approach would combine cuts in emissions, adapting to inevitable changes and employing geo engineering to absorb carbon from the air. The Institution suggests that the shortfall in emissions cuts could in fact be made up by deploying 100,000 "artificial trees" by 2050.

Artificial trees would capture CO2 from the air, but this is still an untested technology.

A spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said: "The Institution of Mechanical Engineers' can't do, won't do attitude is sending out a defeatist message ahead of the crucial climate change talks in Copenhagen.

"The truth is that if we act now we can not only beat climate change but gain from the green benefits that will flow in terms of jobs and investment from going low carbon. That's what our transition plan is already doing, so it's a shame the Institute is not embracing the vast opportunities available for engineers in the shift to a low carbon economy."

The report calls for a warlike mentality to combat climate change, arguing that it needs much tougher tactics and a new enhanced government department to meet the challenge.

According to Dr Fox: "It's time to go to war on climate change. It is attacking us and we must fight back."

Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre on climate change, supports the Institution's approach.

"In wartime we could look over the gate before and see the enemy at the gate, but this is much more difficult now with climate change. We can see it in the southern hemisphere, but that's unlikely to bring about significant action from us, so the enemy is at the gate in many parts of the world now but it is not so immediately obvious for us."

"We are seeing some of the early migratory pressures, the early signs which are not caused by climate change but are exacerbated by it, and that is something we are starting to see.

"I'm not saying that the migration we see today is caused by climate change, I'm saying that the stresses these people are under are being exacerbated so that will see an increased rate, and we are seeing that now."

Professor Anderson also suggests that we may need to see some form of carbon rationing like food rationing in wartime.

"When you have something essential like energy that you can't ration just on price - you have to ration it in a more equitable way.

"So I would suggest for the high reduction rates that we now need, we need something based on equity and whether it's personal carbon trading or whatever, we have to make sure the poorer parts of our communities have access to energy regardless of price.

"So that means for the rest of us, who consume lots of energy we are going to have to make significant reductions to our levels of emissions - there is no way round this."

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