Making government deliver or rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic? Climate policy and the new government departments

By Matthew Lockwood

What does today’s restructuring of government departments mean for climate policy? Badged as being about making government deliver, the Prime Minster announced a relatively major reorganisation, with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) being broken up, a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero being created and business going to international trade to form a new Business and Trade Department. Meanwhile the innovation parts of BEIS will be merged with digital in a new science, innovation and technology department.  

Sunak’s rewiring of government departments reflects his pledge to create a new stand-alone energy ministry during last year’s Conservative leadership election, reflecting the PM’s apparent desire to bring climate back up the agenda. On the face of it, this move takes us back to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), created in 2008 and lasting until 2015. 

So is this good news for better energy policy and for accelerated action to get us to net zero? 

The positive take is that bringing energy and net zero out of a larger department creates focus. It should help government on delivery, which the recent Skidmore review of net zero identified as the key problem. 

A more negative perspective is that this move risks ghettoising the climate agenda in one department, which was a drawback with the DECC arrangement. DECC became the prime point of contact for the Climate Change Committee, and getting other departments to engage on emissions reduction was an uphill struggle as it lacked clout and authority. When DECC was disbanded and energy and climate policy were merged into BEIS, there were fears that they would get lost, but in fact these agendas had wider influence, for example, over an resurgent industrial policy agenda. However, delivery has not been so easy, and in areas like industrial decarbonisation, tied closely to energy prices and competitiveness, there is now a danger that policy may become more incoherent. 

In fact, it could be argued that this issue, i.e., ensuring all departments engage with the climate imperative, is much more important than it was back in 2015. The electricity system is decarbonising quickly and while huge energy challenges remain, such as decarbonising heating, reaching net zero now needs action across other policy areas, including transport, farming, industry, and diet. This suggests that what is needed is not just a different carve up of line departments, but stronger coordination and political direction from the centre, i.e., both the Treasury and No. 10.  

Major initiatives in UK energy and climate policy are deeply dependent on engagement from the Treasury (HMT). From kick starting the Energy Market Reform at the end of the 2000s to limiting the growth of onshore renewables over the 2010s to cancelling money for carbon capture and storage and then reinstating it, the hand of HMT is clearly visible. At the same time, active leadership is needed from the Prime Minster. Boris Johnson created a cabinet committee on climate change, which is one model, but without strong political backing it didn’t actually achieve very much.  

So without some serious political energy from the top, there is a risk that, in the words of Greenpeace, today’s changes are ‘rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic’. But there are deep-seated reasons why political will on climate policy in the UK is typically patchy. This is partly about imposing investment costs (for example, estimates of investment needs for decarbonising the heating of homes are in the hundreds of billions) in what has become an increasingly low wage economy. It is also particularly difficult for the Conservative leadership, with risks lying not so much with attacks from the opposition, but rather from risks within the party, which is ideologically split over the extensive intervention needed. 

Overall, then, today’s redrawing of departments may mean some acceleration of decarbonisation in energy, but will not in itself give us the coordinated approach with strong leadership from the top that we now need. 

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How carbon capture and storage was brought back from the dead, and what happens next

By Marc Hudson

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is often promoted as a technology that will square circles.  One of those circles, in the United Kingdom, is the political need to “level up” the industrial left-behind areas of the north (the so-called ‘red wall’ seats) while also pushing towards a “net zero” economy by 2050.

The idea, that we can catch and bury carbon emissions while also helping steel, glass, cement and other heavy industry sectors become ‘zero carbon’ and keep people in jobs is seductive, and has many political backers.

Right now, CCS looks to be “all systems go”, with Government encouragement for both projects to capture carbon from power plants and factories and in to producehydrogen from natural gas on the East Coast and in the North-West (HyNet). Other projects in Scotland and elsewhere likely to get funding soon. Business models have been developed, contracts ­­­prepared and final investment decisions being pondered.  If – and it is a big if – everything goes as plan, millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide which would otherwise reach the atmosphere and cause our already overheating planet to warm even more will instead be diverted to where they some of them came from originally –oil and gas fields under the North Sea which are now empty.

The UK’s current CCS policy, involving a network of pipeline infrastructure connected to multiple industrial plants and then on to offshore storage sites is closely bound up with the approach to decarbonising industry by working through a ‘cluster’ approach, with “zero carbon” clusters helping the UK to achieve “Net Zero by 2050.”

But what is striking about CCS now being a key mitigation option is the stark contrast with  only a few years ago.

On 25th November 2015, six months after the election which the Conservative Party gained power without having to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats, Treasurer George Osborn announced his spending plans.  Rather than headline the fact that a CCS competition, worth a billion pounds, was being cancelled, a press release was ‘snuck out’.

The Carbon Capture and Storage Association (the main trade body lobbying for CCS) is, like any lobby group, usually quite emollient when disappointed.  On this occasion, they pulled no punches in their press release:

“Today’s announcement that the funding for CCS will be cut is devastating. Only six months ago the Government’s manifesto committed £1 billion of funding for CCS. Moving the goalposts just at the time when a four year competition is about to conclude is an appalling way to do business.”

However, CCS had already had a long and rocky road.  In 2004/5 Prime Minister Tony Blair had spoken of it approvingly.  Back thent climate concerns were growing and the expectation that coal would continue to be a major part of the UK energy mix. But when BP proposed a CCS scheme in Scotland, Treasury refused to give clarity about whether “renewable obligation certificates” would be offered. BP pulled the plug.  A tempestuous first attempt at a CCS competition saw gas-fired power plants be added to the potential winners, and  public protest about CCS as a “Trojan Horse” to allow the oil and gas industry to keep doing what it does. That competition had petered out in2011, after Treasury abolished a levy designed to fund it, and the last remaining competition entrant gave up.   Meanwhile, European Union funding efforts were going nowhere, the Australian Government had pulled the plug on most of its efforts and demonstration projects in the USA and Canada were beset with time and cost over-runs.

Even the biggest fans of CCS were doubtful about its future. Lord Oxburgh in his 2016 review admitted in a letter to the relevant minister that after so many false starts I began this study, as I know a number of my colleagues did, quite prepared to advise you to write-off CCS as a part of UK energy policy.”

How it came back

Exactly three years after the controversial decision by Osborne, the UK government was hosting a major international CCS conference in Edinburgh, and releasing its “Deployment Pathway.” It was also setting in train intensive work on the creation of business models and the regulatory framework for CCS.  How did this dramatic turn-around – a Lazarus-like revival – come to pass.

Our research suggests that a combination of factors.

Internationally, the Paris Agreement had focussed attention on increasing ambition around climate change. There had also been various initiatives such as the “Oil and Gas Climate Initiative” of the CEOs of (mostly European) oil companies, lending increased legitimacy to CCS initiatives.

The UK government (only a week after cancelling the CCS competition) participated in the COP21 climate conference in Paris, and signed up to reducing emissions in line with a two degree target.  A year later the UK government ratified the Paris Agreement. Instantly, that meant that the existing target – of 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, adopted in 2008 as part of the Climate Change Act –  came under intense scrutiny. To keep to its share of a global carbon budget, the UK’s ambition would have to be higher, and a “net zero” by 2050 target was advocated by many. This meant that industries which had previously thought themselves able to be in the 20% of “allowed” emission post-2050, had to start looking more intently at their own emissions. Energy efficiencies and changes to processes could only reduce by so much (and at escalating cost). A “system-wide” solution for capturing emissions from a variety of sources was -so the argument, went – going to be needed.

(Other previously international pressures were less clear. The EU was still licking its wounds after the failure of the “NER300” scheme to fund the much-vaunted 15 CCS projects, announced in 2009. The US, now looking intently at CCS under Joe Biden, was under the control of the Trump administration, hostile to any climate initiatives whatsoever).

Nationally, the Brexit referendum meant not only would the UK have to re-examine its climate policies (e.g. exit from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme), but there was a change of perspective within the Conservative Party to major government spending in support of industrial growth.  Under new Prime Minister Theresa May, the idea of “industrial strategy” was back on the agenda (she made much of this during her Conservative Party election bid.)  Two departments – DECC and BIS – which had previously looked at CCS for industrial decarbonisation, were brought together as “Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy” (BEIS).

The question of how UK industry could innovate and sustain itself as part of a “Green Industrial Revolution” began to pre-occupy policy makers.

Amidst all this, the proponents of CCS – including industry, academics and sympathetic civil servants and politicians – worked hard to combat the argument that CCS was prohibitively expensive and would only “work” for energy generators.  They kept up a constant tempo of reports, conferences and lobbying. Alongside arguments for a “hydrogen economy” (CCS would be needed to capture emissions from creating hydrogen from methane), the main argument they deployed was around saving industries and jobs in the “industrial heartlands” – especially on the East Coast of England.  It did not hurt that a Conservative, Ben Houchen, became Mayor of the traditionally Labour area of Teesside in 2017. He amplified the arguments of groups like the Teesside Collective that CCS was affordable and necessary.

As one interviewee put it to us

“As MPs are passing through the lobby, we need people to ask questions to their MP, “what about our CCS project?” And so it becomes much more locally-owned and supported amongst a diversity of people, rather than the few relatively remote technology advocates.”

Regardless of the hard work, the CCS lobby needed luck. And it got this the arrival of Claire Perry at BEIS as a minister. She and civil servants launched a “Clean Growth Strategy” in October 2017. This strategy was cautiously enthusiastic about CCS (cost flagged as a major factor!). More significantly, she established a “Cost Challenge Taskforce” (The more obvious title “cost reduction” had already been used in 2013!).  This taskforce brought together industry and civil servants which is regarded by our interviewees as the crucial moment of collaboration where details were hashed out, and the idea of industrial clusters” really took shape.  (Not everyone looks favourably on the Taskforce – for a view that it represents naked capture of the policymaking process, see this article by Nafeez Ahmed).

There was no single factor that brought CCS back.  Its return was not inevitable, but instead we can see it as an example of the importance of dedicated and persistent champions who did a variety of things. They

  • Worked assiduously to argue that the price would not be as high as the gloomiest predictions
  • Built a much bigger network of advocates (especially regionally)
  • Used the venues that were available to help “co-curate” policy development
  • Tied the technology to a narrative of industrial growth and innovation, and regional economic development and jobs.
  • Tied the technology to the renewed enthusiasm for hydrogen

How it is different this time?

So, CCS is back on the agenda.  It is no longer about single (energy) point-sources of carbon dioxide connected to a storage facility by a single pipeline. Instead the vision is of multiple sites (energy and industry) making use of a system of pipes leading to a variety of storage facilities, with scope – potentially  – for “greenhouse gas removal.”  Will it work at the speed and scale it needs to? Will the idea of clusters decarbonising continue to be promulgated CCS is NOT delivered? Time will tell. Is CCS, on its own, enough? Definitely not.  The UK (and the world) faces enormous challenges that a “techno-fix” – no matter how compelling and seductive, supported by powerful actors, will not be adequate to the challenges ahead.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex, the Sussex Energy Group as a whole, IDRIC, or any of its partners.

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The Dynamics of Global Public Research Funding on Climate Change, Energy, Transport, and Industrial Decarbonisation

By Benjamin K. SovacoolChux Daniels and Abdulrafiu Abbas

This blog was first published on 15 December 2022 on the  Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) blog. The original can be found here.

Thirty years of climate research funding have overlooked the potential of experimental transformative technologies.

A new study by academics from the University of Sussex Business School Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), which used a transformative innovation framework, discovered the academic disciplines and technologies contemporarily disregarded by research funding bodies in the universal efforts to combat climate change.

Imaginably, transformative technologies such as albedo management or stratospheric aerosol injection have received less than £1 in £500 of climate research funding over the past 30 years, while even established climate change responses such as industrial decarbonisation have received just a third of the research funding that climate change adaption projects have received.

Based on a sample of 1,000 projects totalling more than $2.2 billion in research funding granted between 1990 and 2020, industrial decarbonisation received the least with (11%), followed by geoengineering (12%), transport and mobility (13%), climate mitigation via energy systems (28%), and climate change adaptation projects received the highest proportion (36%), the analysis has reveals in the study newly published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

The study reveals that the past three decades saw funding for climate research being lopsidedly appropriated, with the United Kingdom (40%), European Union (27%) and United States (11%) receiving almost four-fifths of all funding disbursed for a sample of 1,000 projects analysed by the researchers. Moreover, countries such as China, India, Israel or Japan received very low amounts of funding while developing countries, especially countries in the global South, e.g., Africa and Latin America, hardly feature.

The predominance of the Global North institutions, researchers, and the U.K., in particular, are to a greater extent common in the analysis of institutions that are most successful at attracting funding with 20 institutions, 18 of which are U.K.-based, sharing 96% of funding worth more than $800m spent on the social sciences, showing a clear concentration among top universities.

“As a good sign, our tracking of recent research trends reveals a much stronger role of the social sciences, arts and humanities than we would have predicted. These collective disciplines received about 45% of the funding from our sampled projects over the 30 years.

“Surprisingly, the hugely disproportionate funding awarded to the U.K., U.S. and EU raises important questions around issues of justice and equity in funding for Research & Development, especially on technology and innovation that could help address climate-related challenges, which are expected to adversely affect low-income countries disproportionately in achieving just-transitions. Even accounting for the fact that our dataset overrepresents research projects in the Anglo-Saxon world that can afford to publish research data in English, it is clear this is a significant failure to support a truly global response to the world’s greatest challenge.”

In addition, the study on Stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) (0.2% of all climate funding). Although it might resonate like science fiction, the study authors say SAI have the capacity and capability and is technically realisable today for achieving an impending abatement of climate crisis if given more deliberate attention.

The techniques on Marine cloud brightening (0.15%) and Cloud thinning (0%)—We argue that marine cloud brightening could be deployed relatively quickly, using fleets of ships to spray seawater into the air below marine clouds, thereby increasing the clouds’ reflectivity and longevity.

Ocean mirrors (0.15%) and Space sunshades (0.1%) technologies work employing the same pattern of placing scatterers, reflectors, or mirrors either across the ocean (terrestrially based) or into the high atmosphere or outer space (above the atmosphere) to reduce the amount of sunlight entering the Earth, thereby reducing warming.

High-albedo crops and buildings (0.1%)—Albedo technique modification proposes that if the Earth system absorbs less energy, the surface of the Earth will cool on average. The authors explain that technology could reduce the impact of huge volcanic explosions, which inject huge amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, increasing the Earth’s reflectivity (albedo) and decreasing the amount of sunlight absorbed, which can lead to temperature drops of around 0.3C for three years. Possible strategies include albedo modification via buildings (painting them white) or landscapes (managing cropland or marginal land) to better reflect sunlight, particularly in the Arctic and areas of high latitude, where sea ice and ice sheets can be protected.

The study also reveals the impact that major climate conventions have had in shaping the funding level and the areas where funding is focussed. Over the 30 years, the academics identified funding peaks in the early 1990s, coinciding with the Rio Convention and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change launch. A similar jump in funding occurred around 2000, coinciding with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol having its signing period end in 1999, and then a massive surge in funding post-2008 to 2020, which the academics attribute to shifts in policy and technology debates towards net-zero and decarbonisation as well as the influence of the Paris Accords. The analysis also suggests that engineering and technology dominated funding patterns from 1998 to 2002, again potentially linked to the Kyoto Protocol, before a surge in support for social science and humanities projects from 2005 onwards.

However, three decades after the lunch of UNFCCC from COP1 to COP21, the Paris Agreement was produced in 2015. Despite the convention’s cascade of achievements, the conversation around whose responsibility is to reduce emissions and who is responsible for funding climate actions still dominates discussions. With COP27 underway in Sharm El-Sheik in Egypt, there is an ongoing argument on how the previous COPs have not achieved the much-needed results, whereas around 30,000 diplomats and observers attending the summit who usually deeply worried about every other person’s carbon footprint, except their own. What about the leaders and eco-preachers who travelled in the 400 private jets that landed in Sharm el-Sheikh to attend the COP. If world leaders were to be sincere, why “Much COP” if we take climate emergency seriously, why wasn’t it held on Zoom to limit carbon footprint and rather spend such megabucks on climate and energy R&D.

The publication can be found here.

Disclaimer:Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex, or the Sussex Energy Group as a whole.

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Electrified, automated and shared mobility in Africa: Lessons from Johannesburg, Kigali, Lagos and Nairobi

By Benjamin K. SovacoolChux Daniels and Abdulrafiu Abbas

A version of this blog first appeared on the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) blog. It can be found here.

In a newly published article, we focus on three innovations that are particularly important for Africa’s urban areas: automated vehicles, electric mobility, and ridesharing and bike-sharing. We look at four African urban areas in particular: Johannesburg (South Africa), Kigali (Rwanda), Lagos (Nigeria) and Nairobi (Kenya), and ask: what are the drivers behind these innovations in these regions? What are the potential barriers? And what implications for policy or sustainability transitions emerge? Here’s what we found.

Based on a review of the academic literature, we argue that these innovations are particularly important for low-carbon development — an important topic that is under-researched in many developing economies.

Using an interdisciplinary critical and umbrella literature review, we found that none of the three innovations we focussed on were purely positive or negative. All three of them had multiple positive drivers all of which had to be juxtaposed with negative barriers.

Although we treated each of the three innovations as fairly isolated from one another, there are emergent (and potentially strong) couplings or entanglements between them, e.g. between electrification and two-wheelers or automation and ridesharing. In some contexts, hybridization, incrementalism and leapfrogging are seen as positive attributes and desirable characteristics of planning and technology adoption.

Read the full article here.

Disclaimer:Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex, or the Sussex Energy Group as a whole. 

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Inclusively decarbonising energy systems

A few of our Sussex Energy Group researchers are involved in a project called ROLES (Responsive Organising for Low Emission Societies). 

ROLES is all about exploring how European city-regions can use digitalisation to accelerate decarbonisation in their energy and transport sectors. But ROLES is particularly interested in how to do this inclusively, in a way that creates social benefits for their citizens – like reducing fuel and transport poverty, for example.

Over the last few months, ROLES team members in Italy, Norway and the UK have been conducting workshops. These workshops were with stakeholders who intimately understand their city-region’s energy and transport systems, and, most importantly, whom those systems exclude. Check out ROLES’ December 2022 newsletter to find out how these workshops went. 

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent Sussex Energy Group.

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