25 March 2022

The UK Government's net zero strategy outlines how they intend to halve UK emissions by 2035 and eliminate them by 2050. Decarbonising the power sector in just over a decade, backing heat pumps, plus phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles - the strategy marked a step in the right direction.

However, the cost of living crisis has been escalated further by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, raising more questions about energy supplies and security. There's an immediate need to secure energy supplies whilst attempting to reduce soaring prices driving the crisis, with the average UK family's energy bill expected to rise by 54%.

The UK only receives around 8 per cent of oil and 3 per cent of its gas supplies from Russia, but British households and businesses will feel the effects of the conflict as prices are set by international markets which are being directly impacted by the war.

This could see the Government's energy and environmental priorities conflicting, so what will the new energy security strategy mean for decarbonisation?

What to expect

Renewable energy is one potential winner from this situation. The Government is ramping up its plans for offshore wind generation and relaxing planning rules that have stopped onshore windfarms being built in England since 2013.

There are challenges with these sudden changes including where will these new windfarms be built? The recent Derrybrien windfarm case in Ireland shows what happens when an areas' suitability is not properly assessed. The Derrybrien windfarm construction caused excessive flooding and destruction of peatland, one of earth's largest natural stores of carbon. The European Court of Justice deemed the original approval, granted more than 20 years ago, unlawful in 2019, which has seen Dublin amass over €17 million in EU fines.

We must also consider the impact of wind turbine manufacturing. Wind generates zero emissions, but the process of building and installing wind turbines does as the steel, concrete and aluminium used all have a carbon footprint.

According to Bernstein Research, in the long run, the carbon cost over a decade-long lifespan pays off as wind power is estimated to have a carbon footprint 99 per cent less than coal power plants, 98 per cent less than natural gas, and 75 per cent less than solar. Bernstein also estimate that wind turbines average only 11g of CO2 emission per kWh of electricity generated, which once again is less than solar (44g/kWh), natural gas (450g/kWh) and coal (1,000g/kWh).

This leave one other large-scale zero-carbon power source, nuclear power, which beats wind power producing only 9g/kwh.

Going nuclear

Government plans are expected to include a boost for nuclear power, as they look to support investors in expanding Britain's reactor fleet. Keeping the UK's existing nuclear power stations operational will help deliver stability through the current crisis, and worldwide the World Nuclear Association report that nuclear power capacity globally is increasing, with around 55 reactors under construction mainly in Asia.

Once constructed and producing power, nuclear energy offers a mass source of zero-carbon power, yet they are expensive to operate, with obvious environmental and health concerns because of the creation of radioactive wastes including uranium. Security is ironically an issue for an energy 'security' strategy, as there is a risk that terrorists may target nuclear power plants and uranium can be weaponised when in the wrong hands, although such an event is unlikely with strict measures in place.

Returning to the past

Fossil fuels will likely play a part in the strategy with the Government expanding the UK's supplies of gas and oil, with new licences for the North Sea already underway and ongoing discussions with big Middle Eastern suppliers.

Then there is fracking, something which Michael Gove has come out and said he's "not convinced" by. Beyond the health and safety issues, fracking at scale will lead to the industrialisation of much of the UK's landscape. This would face mass local opposition, would be expensive to do and we'd wait years for any gas to be produced - not to mention the huge amount of carbon dioxide emissions generated. Fracking represents a poor short term solution and would certainly lead to more questions about how seriously the Government's taking its own net zero commitments.

That leaves coal, the most unclean source of electricity generation and a source being phased out of in Britain by 2024. The Government may turn to the UK's remaining coal operators as a short term contingency. However, sources in Whitehall claim they are only keeping this option open in case of a deepening crisis.

A final warning

The latest IPCC report was a worrying reminder that we are edging closer to catastrophe in the climate change battle.

Covid-19, the cost of living crises and war in Ukraine have all been mentioned as reasons why clean, UK produced renewable energy, can not only strengthen national security, and be a catalyst for change, encouraging more investment in green careers and the green economy.

Future generations may look back on the decisions made in 2022 as one of the turning points on climate action. Let's hope it was for the right reasons.

Professor Dr Hassan Abdalla , Provost at the University of East London (UEL)

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