The Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) meeting, now in its third year, convened in London this week to review progress on its own clean energy initiatives and to develop new strategies for meeting its targets. It was attended by energy ministers from 23 countries and was anticipated by many as the platform for David Cameron to live up to his “greenest government ever” boasts.
Of course the coalition government hasn’t been having the best time with renewables recently. Chancellor George Osborne has as good as said he thinks the industry is too expensive to be viable, and backed this up by offering £3bn tax breaks for offshore fossil fuel extraction in March’s budget. Cameron himself came into the meeting on a wave of controversy after his planned keynote speech on the environment was downgraded at the last minute to a brief introductory “remark”.
And many commentators felt that it didn’t get any better once the CEM meeting started. For all his glorious rhetoric and claims that Britain was at the heart of green energy, green industry and green jobs, the underlying message was very much business as usual. The focus quickly slipped away from renewable energy itself, and brought into sharp relief what Cameron – echoing his Chancellor - sees as the real challenge: making it financially sustainable.
The stark hypocrisy of those remarks couldn’t have come at a more inappropriate time for David Cameron. In a week when it was revealed that the UK has plunged back into recession the Conservatives are decrying an industry which contributes 7% of GDP, employs over 900,000 people, and is actually growing in the face of a stagnant economy.
The report of the International Energy Agency was no less harrowing. It judged that despite the availability of new technologies they were not being deployed quickly enough, or with enough backing from environmental ministers, to turn the tide of climate change. Their prediction is that at the current rate of carbon emissions, global temperatures could rise by as much as 6C by the end of the century, resulting in catastrophic effects on agriculture and sea levels and rendering many parts of the world uninhabitable.
There were some glimpses of positive news. On Thursday David Cameron announced that a global partnership of energy firms and manufacturers would be developing a colossal renewable energy hub in the North Sea. Focusing on wind power this development – tentatively titled Norstec – would be a huge step towards Britain’s target of upscaling its offshore energy production from 2GW to 18GW.
It was also revealed that E.ON is due to award a £736m contract to British firm Balfour Beatty to lay cables connecting its Humber Gateway wind farm to the electricity grid. And in other encouraging news for renewables plans for two new biomass power plants in Avonmouth and Sleaford continue to make steady progress. In fact, of the IEA’s 11 key low-carbon indicators, mature renewable power such as hydropower, solar PV and bioenergy is the only one currently on target.
And in the bid to reduce carbon emissions in developing nations, Britain has pledged £60m towards building carbon capture and storage (CCS) plants. This new technology involves burying harmful carbon emissions from power stations, but so far has only been trialled on a small scale. It is hoped that this significant investment could see CCS technology being adapted to the developing world’s larger fossil fuel power stations, resulting in major carbon reduction.
So is it really fair for so many green commentators to dismiss the CEM meeting as a failure and David Cameron as a hypocrite? It’s impossible to deny that progress is being made and meetings like this only serve to focus attention back on the task at hand. But at the same time good news like Norstec and CCS technology is noteworthy because of its scarcity. With the technologies at their disposal ministers should be harnessing every opportunity to tackle the reduction of carbon emissions and the growth of renewable energy, instead of hiding behind rhetoric and spoon-feeding us results. With any luck David Cameron will listen to this week’s public furore and start thinking seriously about CEM4.