Not so united front

C&I Issue 10, 2021

Read time: 3 mins

Neil Eisberg | Editor

While the UK’s COP26 President Alok Sharma was clocking up air miles jetting around the world attempting to stir up support for radical measures to combat climate change, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been announcing more and more dramatic and urgent measures to achieve the so-called net-zero target of 2050, in an attempt to encourage other G20 nations to follow suit.

At the same time, domestic push-back on these proposals has increased, with criticism of contradictory government actions, like the possible approval for new oil exploration near the Shetland islands and ever changing announcements about domestic gas central heating boilers.

The rapid hike in European gas prices, and the lack of wind across Europe, with the subsequent pressure on gas-powered electricity generation, have also produced a new set of conflicting imperatives. The situation has been further complicated by unplanned maintenance issues at UK nuclear plants and problems with gas distribution and the wider issue of a cold winter reducing gas stocks across Europe, coupled with falls in deliveries of Russian gas.

As the world returns to some sort of normality after the initial catastrophe of Covid, global gas demand has returned to pre-pandemic levels resulting in massive price hikes.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently issued a statement pulling all these different aspects together, adding that in both North America and East Asia, the winter of 2020-21 saw strong cold spells, followed by heatwaves in Asia and drought in various regions including Brazil pushed up gas demand. The IEA points out that liquefied natural gas (LNG) production worldwide has been lower than expected due to a series of unplanned outages and delays, coupled with delayed maintenance from 2020.

IEA Executive Director, Fatih Birol emphasises: ‘Recent increases in global gas prices are the result of multiple factors, and it is inaccurate and misleading to lay the responsibility at the door of the clean energy transition.’

But energy pricing is not the only issue with an impact on COP26. Despite the UK drive to expand electric vehicle (EV) use, there is still a major lack of public EV charging points across the nation, and most recently, plans have been announced to control when EVs can be charged, limiting future charging stations to off-peak charging due to the potential impact on the already under-pressure National Grid.

Prevarication over the expansion of nuclear power in the UK is now coming home to roost as the unpredictable nature of wind power is being exposed with gas-powered generators having to take up the shortfall.

But the UK is not alone for being criticised about its climate credentials. The US has come under scrutiny over its funding for poorer and under-developed countries – part of the commitment that developed countries have agreed in the drive towards meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. US President Biden’s recent announcement at the UN about doubling the US contribution has been welcomed but the pre-COP26 environment is still full of contradictions.

Germany, for example, has been put under the spotlight, despite its much-touted green image. In terms of carbon emissions, in 2020 Germany’s total – estimated at 606m t of CO2 – was more than the UK’s 326m t and France’s 251m t combined.

France, of course, benefits from its nuclear power programme, while the UK claims its drive for renewable energy – mainly wind power – and the closure of coal-fired generating stations, has helped to bring emissions down. Germany, on the other hand, is on course to close down its last remaining nuclear power stations and despite investment in renewable energy sources, is relying on its coal-powered electricity generators, using poor quality brown coal or lignite.

Lignite creates more CO2 and sulfur when combusted but in 2020 it formed almost 20% of power generation in Germany, which is said to be the world’s largest producer of lignite. Also in 2020, however, Germany announced plans to totally phase out coal use by 2038.

China is in a completely different situation as the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal and the largest user of coal-derived electricity. Despite pledges to cut its carbon emissions, it is claimed Chinese emissions will peak in 2030, but it is also planning further coal-powered generating capacity. It has been suggested that over 245GW of coal power is planned or under development – almost six times Germany’s current coal-fired capacity.

China has, however, pledged to stop building new coal-fired plants elsewhere in the world, in a pre-recorded presentation by President Xi Jinping at the UN General Assembly in late September.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the Global Warming Policy Forum is warning that successive UK governments have laid the foundations for an economic and social disaster due to their climate policies and lack of joined up thinking on energy policy. The COP26 discussions in Glasgow look set to be extremely heated.

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