Page last updated at 09:49 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 10:49 UK

Waiting for the low carbon revolution

Andrew Pendleton (Image: IPPR)
Andrew Pendleton

The low-carbon revolution is not going to happen by itself, says Andrew Pendleton. In this week's Green Room, he calls on governments put the necessary frameworks in place that will allow the private sector to roll out the technologies needed to deliver the ambitious cuts in emissions.

Hydrogen pump (Image: AP)
A low carbon technology revolution will not simply happen, but requires government intervention

In the early 1980s, consultants McKinsey completed a study for a US telecoms company predicting there would be fewer than one million wireless subscribers in the US by the turn of the century.

Today, nearly 2.5bn subscribers across the globe are using digital wireless technologies for voice, email, internet access, music and video services.

The firm is now at the forefront of predicting how different, climate-friendly technologies will help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions and at what cost.

In general, its message is helpful and optimistic suggesting, as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued recently, that much of the technology we need to fight climate change in the next decade is within our grasp.

However, we should be wary of predictions based on the status quo.

Last week, the UK government published an ambitious plan for transforming the British economy into one that is not only powered by low-carbon technology, but whose transport, housing and manufacturing are climate-friendly too.

Women talking on mobile phones (Image: BBC)
Few could have predicted how wireless technologies would change our lives

The plan is to be applauded, as it signals a significant shift in climate policy from the lofty ideals of the climate change bill.

Its emissions reduction targets also suggest an approach that might best be termed "getting down to business".

The plan is certain to come in for some stick; and probably from several different angles at once.

The green campaigners, while broadly welcoming it, are generally of the view that it does not go far enough.

The acknowledgement that implementing the plan will increase household energy bills leaves the government open to attack from political opponents and consumer groups. Certainly, one could quibble with some of the detail.

However, the message sent out by the very existence of a centrally planned, government-led, economy-wide response to climate change is loud and will be heard beyond Britain's shores.

Carbon copy

It is a message that chimes with the results of a study recently completed by the Global Climate Network, an international coalition of think tanks of which IPPR is a founder member.

Offshore wind turbines (Image: BBC)
The UK government low carbon plan relies heavily on offshore wind

Our research involved speaking to more than 100 leading business people, government officials and academics in eight countries: Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Nigeria, South Africa and the US.

We reached three conclusions:

First, we have argued that a low carbon technology revolution will not simply happen, but requires government intervention of the sort the UK government announced last week.

Our research clearly shows that one of the major barriers to low-carbon technology is the lack of coherent policy at the domestic level in both industrialised and developing countries.

A progressive strategy would include tough carbon standards for specific products or sectors, tax incentives to drive investment in low-carbon energy, structural changes to energy markets to encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency and, finally, much greater government support for research, development and demonstration of new inventions.

The need for finance is our second conclusion. This is inescapable and logically follows on from the first conclusion.

Almost all of those whom we interviewed in our study identified the lack of upfront finance as being a major barrier to low carbon technology.

While the private sector may well eventually be the main source of low carbon finance, governments have to lead to make new technologies cheaper and less risky, both with technology policies and with public finance.

Third, we call for an International Technologies Initiative, which could help accelerate the development of new technology through collaboration.

'Valley of death'

The so-called "valley of death" that lies in between invention and commercialisation in which many great ideas perish cannot be allowed to kill off important low carbon inventions.

Power station (Image: BBC)
Carbon capture and storage schemes need public help to get off the ground

Some will baulk at the suggestion that governments should have such a strong role in driving new, low carbon technology; there will be muttering about the dangers of nations "picking winners".

Yet the overwhelming conclusion of our study is that the low carbon technology revolution will not happen of its own accord; it will require a strong, interventionist approach including technology policy.

Later this year in Copenhagen, the world's environment ministers will come together for what is in theory a meeting to put the finishing touches to a new, global climate change agreement.

Currently however, the preparatory talks are deadlocked because developed countries refuse to accept ambitious emissions reduction targets and, as a result, developing countries refuse to talk about targets at all.

In truth, governments on either side of this divide do not fully understand how even the less ambitious of the targets on the table will be reached.

It is IPPR's view that greater emphasis needs to be placed on getting the technology we all need demonstrably working, and developed government-led financing needs to draw in the big bucks from the private sector.

We should not look to the low-carbon future as the study of subscribers to wireless technology did in the 1980s.

This will lead to timid policymaking and defeatism in the face of the great global threat of climate change.

Instead, governments should get down to the business of setting technology policies today that at least stand a chance of delivering a low-carbon revolution tomorrow.

Andrew Pendleton is senior research fellow at IPPR, a UK public policy think-tank

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Andrew Pendleton? Do governments need to do more to help deliver the technologies needed to cut emissions? Is the UK government's low carbon plan a blueprint that other nations should adopt? Or can the markets alone deliver the necessary transition towards a cleaner, most energy efficient future?

When are people going to get it into their heads that electricity can not, and will never be green when the majority of British electrical energy production comes from fossil fueled power stations.

Carbon storage is an unprooven technology, wind/wave/solar are super green but, because of the weather, unreliable, and we would need more turbines than we have space for.

The only method of producing our electrical energy reuirements that is both reliable and prooven is NUCLEAR energy.

A modern nuclear reactor, just one power station, would provide the energy equivalent to all existind and all proposed wind farms in the UK Why is the government still chasing pipe-dreams when we already have the answer for 0% carbon dioxide emissions.

It appears that after 11 years they have been "planned" and talking an aweful lot with absolutely nothing to show for it, in fact in reality we are in a much worse position than before, most of our nuclear power stations have been taken off line and are being decommissioned so since Labour have been in power our CO2 from energy production alone will have actually increased.
mark, whitehaven

Carbon footprint? Hah! The flow direction will be changed according to the elite's needs and there is no immediate need. The majority tends to follow, the few tend to lead, and the very few tend to hide
Chris Panayis, Cyprus

Mr Lloyd Burt from the USA is mistaken on two key points:

First, at an averaged continuous power rate (ie allowing for when the wind does not blow), the wind turbines needed to supply 100% of the energy distributed by our national grid would occupy much less than one tenth - not "one half" of the 250 thousand square km of our country. The calculation - which Mr Burt perhaps should have performed before voicing his opinion - is quite simple: 2MW per square km equates 40 GW (the UK's average grid throughput) generated from 20 thousand square km. A very large area, but less than one twentieth of the total UK landmass. Moreover, Mr Burt omits three important factors: most of the land "occupied" by a wind turbine is still available for farming and other out-of-town functions; at least half of the UK's wind energy in future is sure to come from turbines based in our shallow seas; and a decent proportion of our electrical energy will come from resources other than wind.

Second, Mr Burt betrays a certain unfamiliarity with the whole energy question in declaring that the UK "uses 1000 GW per day". Watts, and kW and MW and GW, denote POWER (ie the rate at which energy moves through a system). He is confusing POWER with ENERGY, which is measured in (for example) kWh per hour, or TWh per year.

If Mr Burt wishes to pursue this matter further, he could look up several excellent North Americam websites, including the World Resources Institute. It would be nice to hear from him again, once he has cleared up some of these muddles.
Mike Koefman, Manchester, UK

ONLY AT FIRST SIGHT does this piece seem to be in English.

Perhaps there is a translation available, or maybe it is a coded message only for those who already know who they are.

Until we are ready to face up to reality ( as she changes ) and work honestly using valid communication and language and can put aside dressed-up attempts at further delusion and procrastination from whatever source and power base, Green means stupid.
Peter, Swansea Wales UK

The average UK electricity demand for a house where the heating is non electric is about 350kWh per month. 10-15 square metres of Solar panelling (main summer supply) and a 3m wind turbine (winter supply) with 9m3 hydrogen storage and 3kW Fuel Cell guarantee 365/24/7 supply for UK Average wind speed and insolation values. In actuality that means that the house produces an electricity surplus around 75% of the time (which could charge up your electric vehicle). Current retail costs for solar & wind turbine work out to about £3K per unit, the fuel cell is about another £3K and I estimate the storage tank, inverter and wiring etc. to cost around £4-5K. Then you have installation costs. So, about £15K in all plus installation charges. At current electricity prices, factored over the 25 yr life span of the solar panels, show that the total actual electricity generated by the £3,000 panels would cost £6,625 if bought from the grid. Wind power gives similar savings. So, at todays prices, by investing upfront in your own microgeneration, you would end up paying less than half your total electricity costs if you could install the equipment yourself. Including the fuel cell and storage costs to enable electricity on demand 365/24/7 shows that going off grid costs about the same as staying on grid over a 25yr lifespan and assuming electricity prices remain constant. Obviously areas of the UK with above average climactic conditions would find much more significant savings.
Peter Tanczos, Surbiton UK

I agree but feel too much confidence is held out for private enterprise to tackle the problem. The corporations are wrapped up in legal documents which effectively keep them bound to past contracts and making a profit. Corporate preferred provider networks won't take kindly to interference in what they consider profit making ventures and the political dealings that brings about. There are two hundred some countries in the world and each and every one of them is going to have to come to terms with a new interpretation of what an 'Act of God' implies as far as business is concerned. This is serious business to keep the planet habitable and the seas alive and it deserves everyone's attention.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

Politicians are handling climate change like any other issue on their list; they are short sighted and focused on re-election. Climate change is not just another issue; it is the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced. Clear action is needed now, cost is always a factor but surely the survival of the planet and humanity comes first!?
haz, uk

Andrew is dead on point with his comments, The biggest issue with current green technologies is their intermittent nature(the sun doesn't shine all the time nor does the wind blow all the time)So storing the energy when the conditions are right for the times when there not is a big stumbling block.

We have a company up here in Sheffield that has already cracked that problem. Dr Don Highgate has brought the cost of manufacturing hydrogen electrolysers down enormously. If we hooked his electrolyser technologies up in conjunction with Wind/Solar/Hydro and Tidal we would have a fantastic storage medium for this intermittent power for use at the previously mentioned non optimal times.

It's Visionaries like Dr. Highgate that need the support that Andrew is talking about. Efficiencies are being brought in to play year on year with Solar cells being produced from cheaper materials and converting more of the sunlight there exposed to into useable power, Wind turbines producing more and at lower wind speeds.

If the Government, Venture Capitalist/Private Equity, and the big banks could get there acts together and put forth a co-ordinated fund to push forward the efficiency research to make Solar, Wind, and Tidal not necessarily stand alone power providers but working in conjunction with technology produced by companies, we may be able to break away from the dependence on Foreign energy. By being able to store the Nations energy supply in the form of Hydrogen which can power cars as well as the nations grid. With the investment I feel it is the perfect solution.
Jon Cowley, Sheffield UK

The idea that much of the technology required to transition to a low carbon economy is within our grasp is patent rubbish. Such a transition will be technically difficult and expensive. The most economically effective scheme would be a shift to nuclear power generation, but even this would involve additional costs and take significant time. Unfortunately our politicians are enamored with diffuse non-dispatchable renewable energy, the cost involved in getting these to substantially reduce our carbon emissions will ultimately turn out to be prohibitively expensive - but climate change policy is driven by environmental ideology, so that's what we'll get. There is pretty well no political debate on this in the UK anymore as all mainstream political parties join the "who can be most virtuous on climate change" band wagon. With the media's love of catastrophic headlines and lecturing us on our social responsibilities, we have no help from that quarter. This will be to our common misfortune and in the end we will all pay the price with exorbitant energy bills. This article is just a plea to keep the gravy train flowing.
Gary Moran, Birmingham, UK

Taking the matter up to 2050 is like a 'Halley's Comet approach' because world can not afford any postponement. It's an irony that 17 countries-that together emit 80% of the world's green house gases, could not reach to an agreement in G-8 summit. All the expectations are from the Copenhagen meeting. Next would be the implementation part that is the biggest challenge as these govts have to regulate the lifestyles of 6.8 bn people and numbers are not stable but growing rapidly. As carbon dioxide level have already crossed the 380 ppm mark, life would be tough in the transition phase. Andrew Pendelton is correct we need a low carbon revolution but a comprehensive strategy based on the current targets is urgently needed.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

The reason the low carbon revolution will not happen on it's own is because of a fatal flaw in the economy, humans. Unfortunately, though on an individual level we are capable of fantastic acts of altruism, on a species level we seem to respond only to very base-selfish instincts. We need to start understanding that the state of the environment, not just global warming but habitat destruction, pillaging natural resources etc. is down to our selfishness and lack of foresight. Until there's a financial reason to buy environmentally friendly products the market place will be governed by the cheap products. I hope to be proved wrong.
Chris, Bristol

I believe that Andrew Pendleton is correct, Governments should be doing more to lower the carbon footprint (and put renewable energy sources) into homes. If you look at many of the systems avaiable to home users they are not widely advertised or known about. I think that Governments should introduce new building legislation to say that if viable home wind generators and rain water collection tanks (used to flush toilets etc) should have to be built and integrated into homes (and any other future viable and proven technology).
Aaron Peach, Gosport

It would require covering 1/2 of the UK with wind turbines (and that all of those somehow, magically be on suitable sites) to reliably provide the 1000 gigawatts per day the UK uses. You can delude yourself with similar "green" and "carbon free" energy sources but in the end you're going to build nuclear plants if you want to avoid carbon. I'd suggest you get going on that as soon as possible and just tell the more radical greens to get over it.
Lloyd Burt, Charlotte, NC, USA

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