It’s about delivery

I think it was Tony Blair that proposed that Government should be about setting targets.

Initially it seemed like a good idea.  Rather than trying to micromanage everything, Government could just set a target and leave delivery up to those that know what they’re doing.  The problem is that this idea has grown into a horrible monster.

For too long, Government has realised it can give the appearance of doing something by simply setting a target. No longer does it need to think up plausible policy to meet the target, let alone do the hard work of actually delivering anything, or even funding its delivery.  And when a target becomes inconvenient, it can be quietly dropped.

For example, the target that all new homes would be zero carbon by 2016, was dropped in late 2015. Today, this has probably added around £1000 p.a to each new home buyers’ energy bills.

Governments quite like making policy announcements, (sometimes simply re-announcing previous policies) However, these policies are often inadequate to meet the target.  As the Committee on Climate Change pointed out last year, only 39% of the emissions savings needed to meet the Net Zero target, are backed up by credible plans or policies.  

Policies are also frequently contradictory, for example opening new coal mines and licensing more offshore oil wells, while claiming to be decarbonising.

Increasingly “delivery” has been delegated to local councils, while simultaneously reducing their funding and powers.   This is unjust, ineffective and deeply frustrating.

Despite many people facing real hardship because of energy prices, Government has made it very difficult for a council to give planning permission for a new wind farm, even though it’s the cheapest source of power, and widely supported.

Increasingly, councils have to compete with each other for tiny grants, often at short notice, making efficient delivery impossible.

As Lord Deben pointed out at a Climate Seminar in Cambridge the other day, as everyone now agrees on the bare minimum climate targets, we need to move on from focussing on targets, to focussing on delivery.

This is why the recently released Skidmore Review on how to deliver Net Zero could be very useful.   Former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore was appointed during Liz Truss’s brief time as PM, and he has clearly framed his report to appeal to the Right. Nevertheless it endorses everything the Climate Committee (and Labour) have been saying.

It points out strongly that Net Zero is “the growth opportunity of the 21st century”. Among other things it calls for more onshore wind, a “rooftop revolution” in solar energy, and a switch to heat-pumps. It also calls for Local Government to be empowered and funded to deliver.

Let’s just hope Central Government is listening.

First published, Cambridge Independent, 1 February 2023

Getting off gas

The United Nations’ recently published report on the causes and consequence of climate change was alarming. But it did also clarify the importance and benefits of reducing methane emissions.

Carbon Dioxide (the main cause of climate change) and Methane (which is the main component in Natural Gas) behave in different ways:  Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, with around 100 times the short term climate impact between now and 2040. However, while the CO2 that we emit now will be around and continuing to warm the planet for centuries (unless we invent and deploy vast quantities of hugely expensive machinery to capture it for us), the methane we’re emitting now will decay and disappear naturally within a few decades.

Despite this short lifetime, Methane has caused about 30% of the warming we’ve seen to date.

Figure SPM2 from IPCC summary for policy makers, 6th assessment report August 2021

This gives us an opportunity.  Stop emitting methane now: the methane levels in the atmosphere will start to fall naturally, and we’ll win precious extra time to decarbonise everything else and avoid disaster.

The main sources of methane in the UK are leaking natural gas from pipelines and drilling sites; burps and manure from cattle; and decomposing waste in landfill sites.

Encouragingly Tianyi Sun, a climate scientist at the US Environmental Defence Fund calculated that using existing technologies—for instance, by capturing leaking methane and better managing agricultural manure—we can halve methane emissions by the year 2030.

Despite the resistance from the fossil fuel industry, we should definitely stop drilling all new oil and gas wells, and urgently stop using gas for heating and cooking.  In parallel, we need to slash leakage from gas pipelines, processing plant and drilling sites (including disused ones which can continue to leak for decades). These leakages can have a surprisingly large effect.

The operator of Cambridge’s gas network, Cadent, estimates in their annual report that 0.4% of the gas leaks out from their distribution network, mainly from aging cast iron pipes. There are similar losses from the North Sea gas platforms , even though researchers report that much of this is ignored in the government’s figures. Worryingly because methane such a powerful greenhouse gas, if even 1% leaks out before being burnt, that would double the carbon footprint of using gas. As Cambridge’s gas network is old and quite leaky, gas leakage could even be the largest single contributor to our climate impact between now and 2040.

So when you see a Cambridge street that’s being dug up, yet again, to install big yellow gas pipes, it may be annoyingly disruptive, but it helps to know how important this is for getting us to Net Zero.

Based on article first publish in Cambridge Independent, August 2021

A post-Trumpian cautionary scenario

This is a fictional scenario, but everything described is a plausible possibility, particularly in the light of President Trump’s election in the USA.   It is not a prediction (the future is too unpredictable for that) but aims to stimulate creative thinking by policy makers, business and NGOs. Continue reading A post-Trumpian cautionary scenario

Breaking the Cycle of Distrust: developing creativity and empathy in a challenging world.

This is a summary of my longer article, first published by Friends of the Earth, and available here

It’s very clear that the next generation will need to do better than us if they’re to resolve the huge environmental and economic challenges ahead of us, build a better society and provide wellbeing for 8-10 billion people while using less resources than at present. They will need innovators, but educational systems in many countries – not least the UK – are killing rather than fostering creativity. Continue reading Breaking the Cycle of Distrust: developing creativity and empathy in a challenging world.