The UK government this week launched its ten point plan for a future greener economy. The name ‘Green Industrial Revolution' is a straight lift from the Labour party’s manifesto at last year’s general election, but differs in some ways. This is a summary of the report with analysis which can be downloaded here.
Point 1: Advancing Offshore Wind
The report says that by 2030, we aim to produce 40GW of offshore wind, including 1GW of innovative floating offshore wind. It goes on to say that this could encourage private investment of £20 billion coming into the UK. Aurora Energy Research (AER), an Oxford-based consultancy, have calculated the UK would need to increase the UK’s offshore wind power capacity by four times what it is today, to reach 40GW by 2030, and cost around £50 billion. On the face, it means the government would need to meet the other £30 billion, which is ambitious given demands on the public purse at present.
This would provide enough ‘power’ for every home in the UK, but it is not clear whether this includes heating, but I don’t think it does, because domestic electricity demand is about a quarter of all energy used in the UK. So, a four-fold increase in offshore wind power suggested by AER, seems not to cover natural gas, which is the main source of heat in UK homes.
Point 2: Driving the Growth of Low Carbon Hydrogen
Working alongside partners in industry, our aim is for the UK to develop 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, says the report. 5GW is a fairly modest amount of energy, but when I first read the Prime Minister’s piece written for the Financial Times (subscription), where he wrote of producing hydrogen from water, I thought this was about electrolysis. Passing electricity through water is one way of producing hydrogen, but only accounts for about 2-3% of hydrogen produced, the vast majority of which is made from fossil fuels.
There is mention of producing hydrogen by electrolysis in the report, but also of producing low carbon hydrogen at scale will be made possible by carbon capture and storage infrastructure. More on this later, but on producing hydrogen from water, there is a major drawback.
The process of producing hydrogen this way consumes approximately 50 to 55 kilowatt-hours of electricity per kilogram of hydrogen produced, so is a very inefficient and expensive way of producing hydrogen. Presumably the plan is for the electricity to be from renewable sources, but later in the report carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels is admitted. To upscale this type of production from renewable sources would put massive demand on renewables, of which most seems destined for domestic use. Nuclear power also comes into the mix later in the report.
There is also mention in this section of ground heat pump technology, which is quite feasible and should have been encouraged years ago.
Point 3: Delivering New and Advanced Nuclear Power
In this section the report says we are announcing up to £385 million in an Advanced Nuclear Fund. This will enable investment of up to £215 million into Small Modular Reactors to develop a domestic smaller-scale power plant technology design. The processes for mining and refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel all require large amounts of energy. Nuclear power plants also have large amounts of metal and concrete, which require large amounts of energy to manufacture, so are not carbon free, although to a lesser degree, you could say the same about wind and solar power.
There are of course problems with nuclear power, the radioactive toxic waste which is only any use for nuclear weapons, which in itself makes it undesirable, but if stored is prone to leak. We’ve seen a few accidents at plants releasing radiation into the atmosphere and there is also the possibility of terrorist attacks, perhaps increased by lots of smaller plants. They tend to be situated in coastal regions for cooling purposes, but this is risky if the seas rise, if plans like this do not limit global warming. Nuclear plants are very expensive too, with the government intended investment looking quite puny.
Point 4: Accelerating the Shift to Zero Emission Vehicles
This section announces the banning of sales of petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030, and that from 2035 only electrically powered (and hybrid) cars and vans will be allowed on the UK’s roads. A consultation will take place on replacing heavy goods trucks. There will be an acceleration in the provision of roadside charging points.
This is good news for air quality in the UK, but the electricity to power these vehicles will need to be produced somewhere, somehow, and it looks likely that this will be produced by nuclear power or fossil fuel burning, although the report does not say that specifically. This will require a huge amount of power, and it is unlikely that this will be able to be provided by wind power, or other renewable energy sources.
Point 5: Green Public Transport, Cycling and Walking
The report promises we will invest tens of billions of pounds in enhancements and renewals of the rail network, £4.2 billion in city public transport and £5 billion on buses, cycling and walking. Some rail links removed in the Beeching era (post second World War) will be restored as well as new rail links between towns and cities, and bring the level of public transport within cities up to the level of London, which is ahead of the rest of the country.
All welcome again, but there is no specific mention of how these trains and buses will be powered, so again it looks as though this will provided by nuclear power and fossil fuels. Walking and cycling of course needs no external power, and is uncontroversial.
Point 6: Jet Zero and Green Ships
The 5GW of power produced by hydrogen mentioned in Point 2, will clearly not be enough the power all civil aeroplanes and shipping, and military craft are not mentioned at all. The report also mentions electric power, but especially with aircraft batteries, they will need to be so large that the number of passengers on flights will need to be dramatically reduced, making them non cost effective.
Again it looks like if this to have any success, we will be relying nuclear power or fossil fuels. Why there is no mention of that old, tried and trusted method of powering ships, wind, is perplexing? Some ships already use sails in a kind of hybrid system, together with a conventional engine, for when the wind drops.
The report also says that blending ‘greener’ fuels into kerosene, which I take to mean biofuel, produced from vegetable oil or the like. This is certainly feasible but as always with biofuels they compete for land with food production and forestation. There is only so much land to go around.
Point 7: Greener Buildings
The government will ‘aim’ for the installation of ground heat pump technology of 600,000 units a year up until 2028, but also leaves open the possibility of providing hydrogen or electrical heating to supplement heat pump supplied heating. Building energy efficiency, with better insulation of buildings (homes and other buildings) also features here, but the Green Homes Grant will only be extended by one year.
Other than hydrogen or electrically produced heating, as mentioned previously, and carbon capture and storage, this is easily achievable, and should have been done before now.
Point 8: Investing in Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage
The report says that the ‘ambition’ is to capture the equivalent of four million cars’ worth of annual emissions, and store it underground. There will be four sites, in Scotland, Wales, the north west and north east of England, but nothing in the south of England. The plan is to use redundant North Sea oil wells as well for the storage of the CO₂. This is not a huge ambition, given that carbon emitting energy will need to be used to implement the rest of this plan, but is perhaps mindful that this technology has not been deployed on a largescale anywhere in the world.
The technology can capture up to 90% of CO₂ emitted by burning fossil or biofuels. According to the Global CCS Institute’s 2019 Status Report, 40 million metric tons of CO₂ from plants currently in operation or construction are captured and stored each year. So, the UK government target for capturing 10 million metric tons, equates to a quarter of what exists in the whole world at present, but is still modest compared with what will be needed.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is expensive. A plant with CCS uses more fuel than one without, to extract, pump and compress the CO2, as well. There is also the problem of leakage, from the wells, but more so from pipelines that transport the emissions. The most extreme sudden CO₂ release on record took place in 1986 at Lake Nyos, which is a lake naturally saturated with carbon dioxide, in Cameroon. It suffocated 1,746 people within 25 kilometres of the lake.
In a paper looking at what role negative emissions should play in meeting the Paris goals, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, a group made up of all the different national scientific academies in European Union (EU) member states, concluded that the technologies “offer only limited realistic potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere and not at the scale envisaged in some climate scenarios”.
Point 9: Protecting Our Natural Environment
This section is mainly about planting more trees, for natural carbon capture and building more flood defences. The aim is that 30,000 hectares of new forests a year will be planted.
The 30,000-hectares figure was laid out by the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change in its net-zero report, which it said equated to planting between 90-120m trees per year.
It concluded increasing forest cover to “at least 17%” of the UK’s land area, together with improved woodland management, that would sequester an additional 14 metric tonnes of CO₂ each year. This figure is based on planting 30,000 hectares annually from 2024.
17% is a big ask for a small overcrowded country like England, so I would expect most of this activity will take place in Scotland and Wales. Estimates vary as to how effective this will be at removing carbon from the atmosphere, but tend to be calculated using mature trees as the model, which obviously take years to grow to that stage.
Point 10: Green Finance and Innovation
This final section of the report focuses on research and development into the other nine points of the plan and will be backed by a £1 billion public investment portfolio. Private investment will be sought by the issuing of a Sovereign Green Bond next year (subject to market conditions).
In a specific mention the report says that the UK aims to be the first country to commercialise fusion energy technology. This technology produces power by using heat from nuclear fusion reactions to produce electricity and can be used to produce hydrogen. Research into fusion reactors began in the 1940s, but to date, no design has produced more fusion power output than the electrical power input, rather defeating the purpose of the exercise.
There is also mention of the City of London exploiting ‘carbon markets’ where emissions are traded around, making a nice profit for the traders, but not reducing emissions significantly, as with EU’s scheme, which is more advanced than any other in the world.
The COP26 meeting on climate change will be held in the UK, Glasgow, next November, so this report is aimed at providing the UK with some kind of leadership role at the summit. It is also noticeable that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has quickly changed horses, after President-Elect Joe Biden’s election win in the US. Johnson was one Donald Trump’s strongest supporters among world leaders, and had little to say against Trump’s climate change denying rhetoric and actions while he was president. The release of this report now is not a coincidence, since the US will probably adopt something similar to this plan.
Some notable omissions from the report are worth mentioning. No mention of banning fracking, when we know that we cannot even burn all of what is left of conventional fossil fuels on the planet. No mention of hydro or wave power, which has potential, particularly wave power for the UK. No mention of future rising demand for energy, which there surely will be. Just one example from the UK is that a space port is planned to be built in Scotland.
This plan is broadly in line with the commitments made by the UK, and other nations at the COP21 meeting in Paris in 2015. The idea of making that agreement was that it would, by and large, allow the world to carry with business as usual. The growth that is required by our economic system, capitalism, needs every increasing levels of energy to power it, so that high levels of economic growth can be maintained. Without this, the system will fall into recession, depression and ultimately die. It is not sustainable, to use an ecological term, but the type of techo-fixes suggested in the UK government’s plan allow for a pretence that it can be.
There are some sensible measures suggested, things that could have been done many years ago, but don’t be fooled that this will improve our chances of limiting a temperature rise to below 1.5C of pre-industrial levels, which COP21 was meant to achieve. But that was never likely to be met by these type of measures anyway.