17 Jul 2009
A Transition Take on the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan
After many months of Ed Milliband putting himself out there are a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change that actually gets climate change, finally his big Plan, the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan was unveiled on Wednesday, in a speech in the House of Commons that namechecked Transition Towns and which is the boldest national vision for a low carbon society yet seen. Many others have since pitched in with their thoughts, I thought it might be useful here to offer an analysis from a Transition perspective. In his speech, Milliband said “we know from the Transition Towns movement the power of community action to motivate people..”, clearly an outcome of his attendance as a ‘Keynote Listener’ at the Transition Network conference in May. So how does the Plan measure up, and does it actually advance what Transition initiatives and the wider relocalisation movement are doing?
The ‘P’ Word
While the terms ‘Transition’ (with a small T) and ‘climate change’ are used liberally, the term ‘peak oil’ never makes an appearance. Clearly this Plan is based on the assumption that economic growth is still feasible and that the cheap energy exists to make it possible, and that a gentle descent of the UK’s oil dependency is possible. In this context, peak oil is a bit like the drunken ex-partner who turns up at the wedding, who everyone tries to ignore, but their being ignored doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, or that they aren’t going to do something mortifying at some unspecified moment. However, given that the UK Government seems to have an inbuilt inability to ever mention the ‘P’ word, it does open the Plan with a sentence which comes as close as we seem likely to get;
“In Britain, as our own reserves in the North Sea decline, we have a choice; replace them with ever-increasing imports, be subject to price fluctuations and disturbances in the world market and stick with high carbon, or make the necessary transition to a low carbon, right for climate change, energy security and jobs”.
The focus seems to be, however, purely on the depletion of North Sea production, not global production. This is in spite of the IEA’s recent upgrading of global depletion rates, which the Government, which bases its take on peak oil on the IEA, has yet to respond to. The impact of the depletion of North Sea gas is also clearly at the front of the authors’ minds, although their take that by 2020 imports will have risen to 60% (although supposedly reduced to 45% by the actions of this Plan), is an optimistic take on previous figures produced by the Government. The 2007 White Paper on Energy stated that by 2020 80% of the UK’s gas would be imported, yet no explanation is given for this somewhat revised and more optimistic figure.
Another aspect that is not given consideration in the Plan’s assertion that “the immediate risk to oil production is not how much oil is left in the ground, but the world’s ability to convert these reserves into production now and in the future”, is the issue of EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested. As David Murphy has so brilliantly shown over at The Oil Drum recently (see left) the energy we can extract from fossil fuels on the downward half of the Hubbert Curve are far lower than what we extracted on the upside. The implications of this are alarming for the assumptions that underpin this document.
Peak oil is conspicious by its absence, as a result of which the Plan misses many opportunities. While strong, ground breaking and ambitious in its carbon reduction strategies, it is in failing to address issues of resilience building that the Plan falls short. It states that over the coming months, former UK Energy Secretary Malcolm Wicks (who once famously ended a reply to a question about peak oil from ‘Last Oil Shock’ author David Strahan by saying “but when it’s going to run out, do you know, can you tell us? I mean, I don’t know”) will prepare a report on how the UK is going to secure its energy supplies during the transition to a lower carbon economy. Don’t hold your breath.
1 out of 10.
There is, as one might expect, much to praise, but also a good deal to damn. Much has been made in the popular press of this Plan leading to hikes in energy bills, but of course, as George Monbiot has pointed out, it is remaining dependent on imported fossil fuels that will lead to the real price volatility. The target of 40% of electricity from renewables by 2020 is ambitious, and is to be welcomed. The creation of an Office for Renewable Energy Deployment is also a good idea. There are great initiatives around retrofitting existing houses, a target of all houses in the UK to have their cavity walls and lofts insulated by 2015 is admirable (my kitchen still needs doing guys when you’re passing), the commitment to investing £120 million in offshore wind is great, the commitment to feed in tarriffs by 2010 is long overdue, and the placing of smart metres in all homes by 2020 and the schemes to roll retrofitting up into peoples’ bills is a good idea.
There is little talk of microrenewables however, and certainly no whiff of any possible new support for that, although the economics of domestic scale generation are now significantly improved by the feed in tarriffs, meaning that a 3Kw photovoltaic system could earn around £1000 a year for the owner, significantly reducing payback times. The Plan also puts, alongside the rollout of wind, nuclear (which it calls a ‘clean source’, and also refers to as ‘affordable’!) and Carbon Capture and Storage (which, just to remind you, doesn’t actually exist yet). Given the precarious nature of the UK’s energy supplies, I would think that any reliance on Carbon Capture and Storage, given that the Plan merely promises the development of demonstration examples, is going to be woefully insufficient, and can only serve to increase our dependence on imported coal, as well as lead to the kind of disastrous new open cast mining we are seeing in Wales. Also, the diagram showing how CCS works (see right), shows it being pumped underground in order to enable enhanced oil recovery, which surely makes a mockery, at least in part, of its role as a low carbon technology?
A key failure for me is around how the increase in wind is to actually be achieved through the planning system. Here in Devon, all but a tiny minority of planning applications for wind turbines are routinely refused. Although the Plan outlines how the planning system will be changed in order to steamroller nuclear power applications through, there is little talk of something similar for wind. Many of the wind turbines proposed are off shore, which are considerably more costly than putting them on land. It is a particular bullet this Plan avoids biting. There is also no talk of community ownership of wind and other renewables, or the role of locally owned energy companies, which could do a great deal to make onshore wind more acceptable. The Plan also reiterates the Government’s brilliant plan of inviting communities to ‘express an interest in becoming nuclear waste sites’. I’m fascinated to know how that particular list is coming on.
7 out of 10.
Much is made of the role of the electric car. 20% of the cuts in emissions are set to come from the transport sector, with an anticipated 40% hike in the efficiency of new cars in 11 years time. This is very ambitious. It talks of installing an “ultra low carbon vehicle infrastructure” and spending £30 million on several hundred low carbon buses. 6 cities are set to have the infrastructure for electric vehicles installed. There is some support for cycling and walking, but the focus is on an electric car revolution. Although the vision set out here is bold and ambitious, I would have very real concerns about its viability. In the current economic climate which looks set only to worsen, how achievable is an electric car network beyond those 6 pilot cities? And where will the electricity come from? Running all the UK’s cars on nuclear generated electricity would require 64 new nuclear power stations, yet I would be very surprised if more than one or two ever get built. Also, by focusing the 6 pilots in the cities, where there should be a strong public transport infrastructure, ignore rural areas, who, it could be argued, have a far stronger case for saying that their car use is essential and unavoidable.
Little is written here about reducing the need to travel. There is nothing in the way of guidance for planners about designing towns and cities so as to obviate the need for car use. There is nothing about out-of-town shopping, or the need for planners to place all key needs within walking distance of peoples’ homes. By 2030, we are to presume, we are all still whizzing up and down the country in our electric cars, passing the electric lorries that are still bringing us cheap trainers and toothbrushes, as well as thousands of tons of food we could just as easily have grown ourselves. As Richard Heinberg is fond of saying, we need to be exploring “not alternative cars, rather alternatives to cars”. There is no talk of Alan Storkey’s idea, which George Monbiot promoted in his book ‘Heat’, for coach lanes on the motorway, which always seemed like rather a good idea to me. Private car ownership remains sacrosanct.
It is interesting too to see how little talk there is of biofuels. In an intriguing statement, the Plan states that it won’t support biofuels that “excessively compete for land with existing food crops”. The word ‘excessively’ is open to all kinds of interpretation. Either biofuels compete with land for existing food crops, or they don’t. The other really weak point here is aviation. The Plan believes that it can cut carbon emissions from aviation while at the same time growing passenger numbers. This is surely a nonsense. Aviation, when the continued economic contraction and peak oil are factored in, is a dying industry, not one that need draw any more of the country’s precious resources. Shipping is also expected to grow in terms of emissions, due to “the ongoing increase in demand for global trade”. This is where the failure to factor peak oil into this Plan from the start is a problem. By assuming continued economic growth, more trade, more demand, more of everything, and then trying to satisfy it, there is a surrendering of control to what it sees as inevitable market forces.
4 out of 10
The Plan restates 2016 of the date by which all new housing will be zero carbon, which is entirely laudable, although Wales has actually managed to introduce this 5 years earlier, by 2011. It might have provided a good push to this had it been brought forward to, say, 2014. Much of this part of the report is as you would imagine, but it does contain the intriguing statement that “the Government is investing up to £6 million to construct 60 more low carbon affordable homes built with innovative, highly insulating, renewable materials”.
Does this mean that there is now £6 million for hands-on research into strawbale, hemp construction, earth plasters and so on? Or does ‘highly insulating, renewable materials’ refer to Kingspan and other industrial oil-derived building materials? At the moment ‘zero carbon homes’ refers only to a building’s performance once built, not the embodied energy of the materials it contains. The role of local and natural materials in strengthening local economies is key. This Plan also doesn’t question the idea that we have to build homes to meet the insatiable demand for housing, something that in the current climate is increasingly looking like an utterly redundant idea.
6 out of 10.
The Role of Communities
Given that Milliband has clearly explored the Transition approach, and told me at the Transition Network conference that he has a copy of the Transition Handbook by his bed, the elements of the Plan that address community are strangely disappointing. While it is extraordinary that after less than 3 years of existence as a concept, Transition has spread so far as clearly having an influence on a Government Secretary of State, he also still doesn’t quite get it. The Plan states;
“It is not always easy for people to see how small individual actions can make a difference. Sometimes people can be more effective by working together as a community”.
Indeed. They also state;
“the Government wants to take community transition to the next level, announcing £10 million for ‘Green villages, towns and cities’– a challenge for communities to be at the forefront of pioneering green initiatives”.
Here is where my frustration comes in. In Scotland, the Low Carbon Communities Fund, which has been allocated £23 million, is what funds, among many other things, Transition Scotland, and a range of other community initiatives. What the UK Government is proposing is £10 million in a pot that communities across the UK will be invited to bid for as a competition, somewhat akin to the very frustrating Big Green Challenge. While Government tends to love this approach of getting communities bidding against each other, it is a deeply flawed approach. What Transition and Low Carbon Community groups need is support for core services, and for specific projects. They don’t necessarily need vast pots of money, if the community responses to climate change are to be resilient and able to do what they aspire to, they need something closer to the Scottish model. Transition groups need some core funding and support, funding for trainings and inputs of skills that they identify that they need.
This competition model is not the way forward, and is a huge missed opportunity. It does not ‘help communuties to act together’, it means that community groups use huge amounts of time and energy going through a convoluted application process where they are pitched against other equally noble community groups, and the vast majority of them end up losing out and feeling embittered by the whole thing (that was certainly many peoples’ experience of Big Green Challenge). Something more like the Local Food Fund would have been a far better model.
2 out of 10.
Food and Farming
Although it is good to see food and farming being given consideration in such a document, this is probably the most disappointing section of the whole thing. It sets the target of getting agriculture to reduce its emissions by 6% by 2020, but does so in such a hands-off, uninspired way that one can imagine the meeting with the NFU where it was made clear that agriculture was largely offlimits for this Plan. The UK Cabinet Office wrote last year that “existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource constrained-future”.So what might that ‘pattern of food production’ actually look like? This paper offers no vision or consideration of this. Much of the reduction in emissions is expected to arise from “encouraging farmers to take action themselves to reduce emissions”. The bite and determination of other chapters of the report evaporates here, the onus being left to farmers, with some training and support being offered, to magically come over all dedicated and get on with reducing their emissions.
The word ‘organic’ doesn’t appear once, in spite of the fact that any dependable system of food production will, at the very least, be organic in a low carbon future. Does the Plan really believe that our dependence on nitrogen fertilisers, with their major contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and their draw on the depleting natural gas resource, is actually sensible and/or feasible? There is also nothing about the role of local food, urban agriculture, (and this in the week that the Mayor of San Francisco ordered an audit of all possible food growing spaces in the city, including rooftops and windowboxes), or community supported farming. It does acknowledge the role of soils as carbon stores, but then says nothing about how organic farming is a more reliable way of ensuring that it stays there. Peter Melchett, Policy Director at the Soil Association, put it beautifully in his analysis of this part of the Plan, “the Government are certainly understating the case when they say that, for farming, they do not yet “have all the answers””.
1 out of 10.
Overall, I think this is as bold and brave a plan as could be expected given the circumstances under which it was no doubt written. Here is a government approaching an election, having been in charge during a spectacular economic unravelling, with Milliband having to fit within and keep on board a Cabinet obsessed with economic growth (the Mandelson/Brown effect). The brief set for it was to create a low carbon economy in the context of economic growth, in complete contradiction to all the indications to the contrary. I think Milliband is a dynamic young politician who wanted to do something very far-reaching here, but he has had to do so in a very difficult context. Within the context of what he can actually do, I think it is very good. In terms of being a plan that will enable and underpin this country’s inevitable energy descent and relocalisation, it is inadequate.
Praise where it’s due; on the positive side, the Plan takes many decisive steps forward and puts mechanisms in place to ensure that the various Government departments actually carry them through. It is nothing if not ambitious, although its starting assumptions are such that it is designing for a world that will almost certainly not be possible. However, it is, of course, the victim of a degree of inevitable compromises (especially in the farming area) which hamper the effectiveness of such a wide ranging proposal. I do think that as a plan produced by government it is as good as we are likely to get, indeed some parts of it are much better than one might have expected.
From my perspective, it throws the challenge back to Transition groups and others. The Government has set out an unprecedented dedication to the low carbon agenda, and thrown considerable weight behind it. The role of communities is seen as being vital, and encouraged, but the ball is in our court. We often say communities can’t do this on their own, they need Government working to support the low carbon agenda. Now they have gone some way towards that. What is missing from this Plan is the local detail, the stuff that central Government can’t do; the locally owned energy companies, the local food networks, the groundswell of desire for change, what Jeremy Leggett calls the ‘scaleable microcosms of hope’. This is what Transition can do, and I feel, having read this report, and having heard Milliband’s endorsements of the Transition Network, that the door to real and deep change feels significantly more open than it did last week.