An act of stupidity?

4th November 2014

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Philip John Jolley

Just like the renewables that Paterson criticises for relying on subsidies, his favoured options - shale gas, CHP and small nuclear reactors - will require public money.

Owen Paterson’s tenure at Defra was short-lived. Judging by his latest comments – in a speech to the climate change sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation – the environment got off relatively unscathed from his almost two years at the helm of the department.

The erstwhile environment secretary wants the UK to rip up the carbon reduction targets enshrined in the Climate Change Act 2008. It should be remembered that 463 MPs – including Paterson – voted in favour of the Act, which requires the UK to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2050 against 1990 levels.

But, according to Paterson, the 2050 target is being used to drive subsidies towards impractical and expensive technologies. He describes solar farms as futile eye-sores and a waste of land, tidal and wave power as expensive and impractical, and onshore wind as a subsidy-drunk industry, which is devastating landscapes.

He also argues that the reason the UK is leading on offshore wind is because no other country is quite so foolish as to plough so much public money into it.

He does, however, accept the possibility that climate change may eventually turn dangerous, so it would be good to cut emissions. Fracking for indigenous shale gas, the construction of large-scale, localised combined heat and power (CHP) plants and small modular nuclear reactors, as well as the introduction of rational demand management system are the way forward for energy policy in the UK and will be sufficient to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, says Paterson.

The extent to which fracking will be environmentally and economically viable in the UK (pp.16–19) is debatable, while regulatory approval for “mini” reactors is likely to take years, their development costly and their popularity in urban areas zero. CHP and demand management are potentially more realisable and the government is pursuing both.

But, just like the technologies Paterson criticises for relying on subsidises, his favoured options will undoubtedly require taxpayer support. The government is already seeking to overcome resistance to fracking operations by offering local communities money to host them.

It is also worth remembering that the fossil fuel industry has consistently received public money. The European commission reported recently that, in 2012, subsidies across Europe to conventional power technologies totalled €22.3 billion.

That is some way short of the €38.3 billion given to renewable technologies, but the money spent on supporting coal, gas and oil does not take into account the free allocation of allowances under the EU emissions trading system (p.4) nor the external costs, such as the cost of health and environmental impacts.

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