Last week’s statement from Ofgem that consumers face higher gas and electricity bills was the latest in a series of warnings about the future of the UK’s energy supply.
While politicians talk about a low carbon future, scientists have been working behind the scenes on how best to achieve the country’s target of at least an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.
Even now, five years after the Climate Change Act became law, the effectiveness of key policy instruments, such as Electricity Market Reform and the Green Deal, remain highly uncertain.
Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Resources, has spent years modelling the future.
Tomorrow he will be in Parliament, alongside other leading academics, to brief MPs about their research into the key challenges facing energy policy.
“Although 2050 seems a long way away and you might think that politicians wouldn’t be terribly interested in it, it is of very great relevance to this Parliament,” he explains.
“At the moment the policies are not in place for us to hit those targets and I hope that they would be introduced soon.”
Professor Ekins has been modelling long-term scenarios.
“We have what we think is a very good energy systems model with which to do that.
“It has been a significant public investment and the model has been used extensively in public policy analysis. We are keen to make those findings widely available.”
The first message he wants to send to Parliament is that the targets set out in legislation can be achieved.
“The model is absolutely clear that even a 90% reduction can be done and it is not outrageously expensive to do it.”
However, to hit the target work needs to be done now.
“Because a lot of energy infrastructure is very long-lived, the decisions we make now and between now and 2020 are critically important,” he explains.
“If we want to meet our statutory emission reduction targets in 2050 it ought to be obvious that we can’t leave doing something until 2049 and then suddenly think we are going to decarbonise the whole energy system.
“There are some broad conclusions that you can draw from these modelling runs.
“There is enormous variety within the detailed results and that in itself is very important.
“If every single model run we had done, after we had updated the data with the latest technology costs, had come out in favour of a particular technology as the cheapest that would have been very significant, but it doesn’t.
“For any lobby that were hoping we were going to say categorically that the government should back this or that, they are going to be disappointed.
“On the other hand, the fact that we get different results from different mixes of technologies suggests a very strong conclusion that the government should back a range of options.”
Professor Ekins will be sharing more detail about that range of options at tomorrow’s briefing in the Commons.
“We knew there would be a lot of variation, that always happens in models when you update them and you change and improve them, but what we wondered was whether there would be any enduring messages coming out from all the different scenarios,” he says.
“If you get the same result again and again, despite these variations, then the model is trying to tell you something.
“The first set of runs modelled 40% by 2050 and then 60%, 80% and 90%, a range of ambitions in carbon reduction.
“The model tries to meet that in a cost-effective way through a range of technologies and there are more than 1,000 technologies in the model which you can choose.
“It is interesting to see which technologies it will choose depending on the ambition of the emission reduction target.
“Only the 80% or 90% emission reduction targets meet the climate change act targets so we spent more time focussing on those as all political parties are committed to those.”
Professor Ekins says the results “shed light and bring insight onto these uncertainties and suggest whether public policy should back various options and where it should focus its resources”.
Alongside that, his research has reached some quite specific results to do with decarbonisation of electricity.
Professor Ekins will also urge MPs to think about the way people in the UK will be living in 40 years.
“There are a number of really big transformations in prospect,” he explains.
“For example, the way we heat our houses. Today most people have a natural gas heating system in their house with a boiler that burns gas and powers up the central heating.
“That sort of heating system is completely inconsistent with our carbon targets.
“That is 26 million heating systems that are going to have to change if we are going to hit those targets. That is a really big deal
“The good news is that there are alterative technologies and alternate heating systems that would allow us to decarbonise the way we heat our buildings, and the models have very detailed suggestions of what those are.
“But there is not getting away from the fact that it is a very big transformation.
“The same goes for our transport system.
“At the moment it is dominated by internal combustion engines burning petrol and diesel. It won’t be – it can’t be – if we are going to hit our carbon target in 2050.
“There will be different fuels, there will be different engines and the model is clear that the technologies exist to do that and it suggests what they might be, but it is a very big change.”
Professor Ekins says it is clear that we are going to have to accelerate progress in a low carbon direction if we are going to hit the 2050 targets.
He adds: “How easy or difficult it will be for citizens to adjust depends in one sense on how convinced they are of the need to adjust.
“People are always prepared to do things and find ways of doing things that are not as inconvenient as they thought once they are convinced there is a need to do that.
“I am convinced that it is imperative that we do reduce our emissions.
“Government has to introduce imaginative policies that will help people to change and help them financially and in terms of infrastructure.
“We are in a global situation in which by 2050 nine billion people want to live like middle class consumers, and they will all want to drive cars and they will all want to use oil and gas.
“We are going to go through a very volatile period of oil prices, but if we can get decarbonised it could have economic benefits for the UK.
“It can be done, but the politics of doing it are pretty challenging.”
The UK Energy Research Centre is hosting tomorrow’s event in the House of Commons, supported by Tim Yeo MP, Chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. The event will also launch UKERC’s latest research report - The UK Energy System in 2050: comparing low-carbon resilient scenarios. More details are available from firstname.lastname@example.org or +44(0)207 594 2669/1573.