Owen Paterson, the UK’s former Secretary of State for the Environment – and now scourge of environmentalists – made the most extraordinary speech a few days ago on climate change and energy policy. The speech was a rare combination of the unremarkable and the nonsensical. In the unremarkable category, Mr Paterson argued that climate change science was broadly right. Equally, his endorsement of local combined heat and power and what he called ‘rational’ demand management are compatible with a suitably wide-ranging approach to countering climate change. His scepticism about the achievability of an 80% cut in GHG emissions by 2050 is at least arguable, and his view that the attempt will be very expensive is almost certainly right – but probably much less expensive than the long-term cost of inaction .
But most of the rest of his speech is deeply misguided and/or prejudiced. The warning signs come early on in his appeal to ‘common sense’ – always a dangerous approach, as my common sense will rarely be yours, and is often a cover for deeply-held prejudice. The idea of common sense also has the appeal of not needing scrutiny. Among the ‘common sense’ ideas Paterson advocates is exploitation of shale gas and, somewhat bizarrely, the building of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). Shale gas is of course something that the UK may well develop in a limited way, though at some political cost and offering no reductions in gas prices, as the UK is well integrated in a European market that will scarcely notice UK shale production. So shale’s impact will at best be marginal, take several years to become even noticeable, and not likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And his view that renewables are hopelessly expensive ignores the fact that there are major, ongoing cost reductions in many renewable technologies
But with SMRs, we enter the territory of fantasy. First, he oddly confuses the obsolete (and as it happens, quite small) UK Magnox reactors with the new generation of proposed SMRs. But no SMR (properly defined) has yet been commercialised anywhere in the world, and work on them – mainly in the USA – has been waning , as their developers, notably Westinghouse, have said they cannot find a market. This is unsurprising as their cost per unit of output is higher than the already expensive conventional, larger reactors, unless hundreds can be sold to give manufacturing economies. But no-one will commit to large orders of technologies that are not yet proved to work reliably. The MIT, in their study of the future of nuclear power, convincingly argue that radically new nuclear technologies take up to 50 years to become established due to factors like the need for safety licensing, prototype experimentation, planning and siting approvals, slow construction times – all in the context of historically rising costs and a need to win public acceptance. So we should expect no significant contribution from SMRs by 2050, even if they do become commercialised, which is far from clear.
But perhaps most extraordinary of all in the speech is Paterson’s contention that rising energy bills, penalising (‘coercing’) especially the poor, have been a consequence of rising green taxes or levies. There are two major flaws here: first, the overwhelmingly biggest contributor to rising energy prices over the last several years has been hefty increases in the price of gas; and second, slightly more than half of these green charges directly pay to help reduce fuel bills for the poor via insulation or more efficient heating systems.
If all this was not quite enough, Paterson ends with a clarion call to give scientists and businesses the ‘freedom’ to explore relevant new technologies. Quite what is supposed to be shackling these communities is not clear from the speech; and the reality is that there has been an enormous increase in research effort in energy in recent years, which will hopefully both widen and cheapen the range of technological choices which will help meet the challenges that climate change so formidably poses.
Professor Gordon MacKerron, Professor of Science and Technology Policy, SPRU, Co-Director of Sussex Energy Group.