Suffice to say, given who is hosting the COP 26 summit, I see very little chance of it achieving much, or anything meaningful being discussed. Even some of the corporate sponsors have started to complain about Johnson’s mismanagement. To which my reply is, remind me of anything he’s managed well, what were you expecting?
Consider that within the last few weeks the Tories have dropped climate change commitments in order to get a trade deal from Australia (necessary given the enormous levels of food miles any such produce will clock up), they’ve considered allowing water companies to pour raw sewage into rivers (due to a lack of key chemicals post-brexit) and the recent budget has cut various carbon taxes, such as on flights and petrol duty. And this is on the back of numerous cuts made as regards renewable energy or energy efficiency measures. Putting Johnson in charge of COP 26, is like putting a fox in charge of the hen house.
Indeed we need only look at the Tories domestic policies as regards climate change for more proof, that as with so many things, its all smoke and mirrors, a PR spaff so they can look good for the cameras. For example, he’s proposed solving the UK’s heating dilemma with heat pumps. However, as I’ve discussed before, heat pumps aren’t really a solution by themselves.
Firstly they tend to under perform typically only getting a COP of 2 to 3 against the more widely quoted 4 to 6. Keep in mind that, assuming a standard grid efficiency of 25-33%, means that unless your grid is largely carbon neutral, then the heat pumps will actually produce more carbon dioxide than a natural gas boiler. And, on top of their much higher installation costs, they will be more expensive to run than gas. I explored the option of a heat pump myself, but the practical issues, notably where to locate the AHU (as I live in a flat) didn’t really make them a viable option. And its worth considering that a significant number of boiler installations tend to be “distressed purchases”, as in the boiler’s failed and you need to get it fixed in the middle of winter.
There are situations where heat pumps do make sense, generally with more modern and energy efficient homes, particularly if they have a large garden to accommodate the ground coil for a GSHP. However, others are better served by options like solar thermal or biomass (my dad has both and for him the fuel is free, my sister’s home in Germany is heating by a biomass pellet boiler). But quite a number of homes (particularly flats) and industrial users of heat are going to have to be heated by some sort of gas fired heating, natural gas burnt in CHP plants & district heating systems being probably the better option for now. Later on, such systems can be converted to run on hydrogen or biofuels.
Of course if more homes were better insulated (and the UK has some of the least efficient in Europe), heat pumps would make sense. However, the government has cut funding to home insulation initiatives (hence the guys lying down in the road blocking traffic). And they scrapped the zero carbon homes imitative from the previous labour government (my home is so energy efficient because it was one of the last built under this scheme). A move that benefited literally nobody in the country, except certain Tory donors in the house building industry. They also, cut the non-domestic RHI scheme and its expected that the domestic RHI will follow eventually.
And while yes about 50% of the UK’s electricity grid is carbon neutral, much of that is located in Scotland (which could be a foreign country in the not too distant future). What capacity is in England consists of ageing nuclear plants which aren’t going to be replaced, or are renewable projects that predate Tory cuts to renewable subsidies (including the defacto banning of onshore wind energy, the cheapest of all renewable options). Meeting all of these new power demands means a lot more installed capacity needs to be added to the grid. Notably because heat pumps perform at their worst when the weather is coldest. Hence a grid with lots of them installed is going to see a spike in demand in the middle of winter, just when you don’t want it.
Given the Tories current belligerent attitude towards renewables, its reasonable to assume that they will not provide the right incentives to develop renewables, smart grids or any of the other improvements that would allow these policies to work. Hence, its likely the UK will end up just becoming more reliant on natural gas, and energy imports from abroad (in which case the carbon footprint of the UK’s grid ends up being decided by those same foreign governments, that’s taking back control!). Which also leaves the UK vulnerable to pressure if those foreign neighbours decide to cut off the power due to, say you not honouring the brexit withdrawal agreement.
Indeed, the government has proposed to cut renewable subsidies even further. They argue that they need to make natural gas heating more expensive, and cutting subsidies making electricity cheaper (despite the fact that such subsidies are a tiny fraction of any electricity bill). Well good luck with that one. That will be about as popular as pig manure and an immediate vote loser (hence it will be dropped once an election looms).
And banning gas boilers, won’t work anyway. When my gas boiler failed one of the options that was suggested to me by a plumber (as installing a new one would mean installing a new flue or relocating it, an expensive and disruptive undertaking) was to do a boiler rebuild. Essentially scrap all the defective components and replace them with new ones. On paper its the same boiler (and hence no need to install a new flue). But, like the ship of Theseus, its essentially a new unit. This is exactly what everyone will do with their old boilers if you ban them. Houses with old gas boilers might actually become more valuable than ones with new heat pumps due to the lower heating costs.
Similarly they’ve tried to ban wood fuel (why? Don’t know, I’m guessing because they don’t understand the problem). And what is the likely outcome? People with wood burning stoves will just burn rubbish instead (i.e. low grade fossil fuels). They are literally promoting some of the worst climate options. Never mind the potential dangers of operating old gas boilers well past their useful service life.
And let’s be clear, electricity is so expensive in the UK because we’ve had a dysfunctional government who has never come up with a comprehensive energy policy. They lurched from promoting one fad or another, punished other sectors when it became clear their policies weren’t getting the results they expected. And the end result is a lack of investment in the grid, with energy firms going bust on a weekly basis. If the Tories want to know whose fault this all is, they need merely look in a mirror.
Other EU states have avoided all of this by directly subsidising low carbon energy projects. As well as promoting policies, such as community ownership. Or, rather than micro managing the grid and picking winners & losers (such as favouring nuclear), they’ve adopted a free market approach and let the markets decide on the mix of energy sources. They’ve also understood the need for joined up thinking, so promoting better energy efficiency (CHP, district heating, better insulated homes, etc.) and reducing car use have also been important goals.
So given this background, does anyone really expect anything meaningful to come out of COP26? I’m sure there will be some headline grabbing and staged event, no doubt. But, much like the Tory policy on heat pumps (which is so woefully underfunded as to not even be a drop in the ocean), brexit or anything else, it will be just a distraction. A photo opportunity and some good headlines. Then once the news media have moved on to something else, any half assed commitments can be quietly dropped or reneged on.