Posting on http://www.economist.com/node/18712497/comments#comment-923970
'legally binding targets'?
"In the probable event that the 'legally binding targets' are not met, who penalises whom and how?"
This is the question I posed on 17th June 2010 at a seminar for the Imperial [College] Centre for Energy Policy and Technology (ICEPT) and the Energy Futures Lab. given by Lord Stern and Will Cavendish.
Lord Stern's answer: "It's just words".
Meanwhile, Chris Huhne's 'legally binding' carbon budget will increase power bills, encourage industrial CO2 emigration (e.g. Tata Steel aka Corus aka British Steel), yet have a negligible effect on climate change – assuming that the climate models are accurate – on a global view the UK’s contribution is miniscule.
There is an on-going series of ritual international genuflections on stabilising and reducing CO2 emissions at selected resorts: Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban, Rio ...
Despite these earnest objectives global fossil fuel consumption continues to rise. The International Energy Agency baseline prediction: CO2 emissions will increase from 30 GTonnes in 2010 to 57 GTonnes in 2050. This is a clear consequence of population growth and increasing living standards.
The philosophy of the UK governing establishment is therefore masochistic and ineffectual: we are to be punished for the perceived sins of the past in leading the fossil fuel powered industrial revolution whilst producing no net benefit by reducing the perceived future threat of climate change.
To what extent should we accept a readily quantifiable economic penalty now to meet an uncertainly predicted danger in 50 or 100 years time? What technology could emerge in the interim to fix the problem?
[Cui bono ("To whose benefit?", literally "as a benefit to whom?" … is a Latin adage that is used either to suggest a hidden motive or to indicate that the party responsible for something may not be who it appears at first to be.]
If we do accept the dogma that global warming is taking place and anthropogenic CO2 is the cause, then, given the increase in fossil fuel burn, global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come - ice will melt; sea levels will rise.
(But: What plans do the pragmatic Netherlanders have to cope? - the UK government’s view in DECC is that the existing Thames Barrier will provide adequate protection until 2070.)
Fossil fuels produce C02; the defossilisation/de-CO2-ification of increasing global energy consumption will become an imperative.
Carbon capture & sequestration is an expensive and unproven palliative.
Wind is intermittent and needs back up from other generators; there are also significant costs to develop a distributed grid infrastructure. The UK is not routinely blessed with sunshine even if solar PV gets cheaper.
Therefore in the immediate term the only viable solution is nuclear (fission) power. This does have the associated problems for managing the waste residues as well as the potential for terrorist attack and WMD development.
In the longer term the ultimate ‘get CO2 free card’ is nuclear fusion. There are no associated residues or risks of catastrophic failure; however, the technology needs major R&D investment to bring down the lead time. This has hitherto invariably been presented as a problem whose solution is "30 years away, and always will be". But there is evidence over the past 40 years that this slippage is entirely attributable to inadequate funding. Using relatively primitive design, communication and computational tools the Manhattan project delivered fission technology for the bomb within 5 years at a cost of $2Bn (less than $30Bn today). Whilst it seems possible and acceptable for institutions like the Fed. and the BoE to create billions if not trillions at the stroke of a pen/at a key-stoke, it seems bizarre that greater urgency is not being given to accelerating the development of fusion technology (an area where UK has world-leading expertise) to deliver carbon-free electricity.