There’s a misperception that arises now and then among journalists, NIMBYs and even shale supporters that Greens are winning against shale gas but reality and a UK rope-a-dope strategy are the real winners.
Natural gas, efficiency and renewables are now combining to cut CO2 in North America, China and as we see in the UK this year, in Europe. Coal is dying everywhere. Last year, expensive gas enabled cheap coal to deliver up to 40% of UK power demand. In 2015, cheaper gas has cut that in half and most days, natural gas is the dominant form of power generation, with zero carbon nuclear also often beating coal.
Meanwhile, the UK government has been playing rope-a-dope with greens who can’t see the forest for the trees.
The present and growing impact of gas on coal is the subject of an excellent report from our good friend Drew Leifheit over at Natural Gas Europe:
Sund Energy‘s analyst Alan Whitefield introduced a study on the possible role that gas could have in the generation of electricity. Among the key messages, he offered, “The first is that regions are moving in different directions for generation. And coal and renewables are more to blame than gas itself.”
Roger Bounds, Global Head of LNG, Shell, raised the question of what role the natural gas industry can play as an industry to encourage a further uptake of gas and to see that it penetrates more fully.
Recognizing that global energy demand will continue to rise, he said, because populations are growing, primarily in cities which are energy dependent and where quality of life is improving. “With that affluence and improved quality of life, they also make greater call for cleaner air, sustainable development energy systems, and they can afford and are willing to pay for, are now prepared to make the choices which would lead them to choose gas and gas complemented by renewables.”
The death of coal is clearly good news for the climate, a trend that will be clearer still at the Paris Climate Conference. China and the US between them are over 40% of global CO2. The news from China on coal is good news as even Greenpeace noted recently, emphasis mine:
Official data from China shows coal use continuing to fall precipitously – bringing carbon dioxide emissions down with it.
The data – which comes months before crucial climate talks in Paris – means China has cut emissions during the first four months of the year by roughly the same amount as the total carbon emissions of the United Kingdom over the same period.
The figures suggest the decline in China’s coal use is accelerating after data for last year showed China’s coal use fell for the first time this century
An analysis of the data by Greenpeace/Energydesk China suggests coal consumption in the world’s largest economy fell by almost 8% and CO2 emissions by around 5% in the first four months of the year, compared with the same period in 2014.
Using a global scale more obvious among green NGOs in London and Brussels than local opponents obsessed with house prices, the net result means the 1.4% of global CO2 produced by the UK has effectively been neutralized. The UK climate change target of 80% decarburization by 2050 has been reached thirty five years early. It doesn’t really matter to the planet’s atmosphere if the carbon cuts come from the UK or China – the important thing is that they happened.
Combine the same trend in the US, and it’s clear that a Paris agreement will be founded on the new reality of globally abundant natural gas combining with the success of renewables and efficiency. There is a growing realization how gas enables the take up, and even an accelerated success, of renewables.
Ever since Kyoto, the green narrative has been one of impending catastrophe. Paris will show that catastrophe isn’t what it used to be. A key example comes recently from Nicholas Stern, the father of UK climate policy recently:
China has now entered a new phase of economic development — a “new normal” — focused on better quality growth. From structural changes in the economy to explicit policies on efficiency, air pollution and clean energy, China’s new development model is continuing to promote economic growth while driving down its GHG emissions.
This new strategy is now playing out in China’s economy. For example, coal consumption fell in 2014, and fell further in the first quarter of 2015. Analyzing trends in the key emitting sectors, we conclude that China’s GHG emissions are unlikely to peak as late as 2030 — the upper limit set by President Xi Jinping in November 2014 — and are much more likely to peak by 2025. They could peak even earlier than that. With a comprehensive approach to reform, they could also fall rapidly post-peak. China’s transformation has profound implications for the global economy, and greatly increases the prospects for keeping global GHG emissions within relatively safe limits.
A report from China itself says things may be even rosier:
Yet China could do better still. China is set to outperform its existing 2020 target of a 40–45 per cent improvement in emissions intensity compared to 2005. Average annual reductions from 2005 to 2014 were 4.5 per cent as reported by Beijing, while only 3.9 per cent per year is required on average to meet the ambitious end of the target range. If the 2020 target is outperformed, as now seems entirely possible, then the 2030 target becomes commensurately easier and could equally be outperformed.
But ironically, this good news isn’t making UK greens happy. I was at an Aldersgate Group event on Budget Day and the mood was one of almost despair over the cuts to UK renewable and efficiency subsides. Since then, despite the crowing of Friends of the Earth over their victory over fracking, things have gone from worse to terrible:
The government is reportedly preparing a “big reset” of clean energy subsidies in a move that could slash support for solar projects and trigger a major re-shaping of the UK’s decarburization strategy
Sources told the paper ministers view on clean energy subsidies had “hardened” and that a “big reset” of support policies was being planned.
There are two reasons why the government is “hardening” and the FoE “victory” is one of them. The other is that instead of looking at UK climate policy in isolation, one has to understand that the austerity model of UK government puts greens in the same boat as everyone else. Everyone is getting cut and it’s wrong to think of the government having it in for greens alone: nurses, teachers, unions and everyone else are being damaged by government cuts. These were on the table anyway and have nothing to do with climate. But the hardening of the government position is most likely connected to the shale “victory”. The government too can stand up after getting hit. Taking the boxing ring analogy further, this could be a case of “rope-a-dope”.
The rope-a-dope is a boxing fighting style commonly associated with Muhammad Ali in his 1974 Rumble in the Jungle match against George Foreman.
In competitive situations other than boxing, rope-a-dope is used to describe strategies in which one party purposely puts itself in what appears to be a losing position, attempting thereby to become the eventual victor
Friends of the Earth spit on the government’s face and celebrate a victory. The government gets up. Maybe there is no connection. Maybe there is as the bell rings for the next round in Lancashire:
Campaigners have slammed the Government for allowing gas storage to go ahead underneath Over Wyre – despite tens of thousands of objections, opposition from local authorities, and three previous rejections by the Government.
The government appears not be too scared of thousands of protestors in a multi-year campaign that made the Cuadrilla application look incidental. Back in 2008/10 many groups welcomed shale gas as a weapon in stopping storage. Those groups, and everyone else continue to use natural gas. The consequences of the rejection of UK shale gas stored underground leads to the ridiculous, but not illogical, result of US shale gas imported as LNG being stored in Lancashire next to UK molecules that the Lancashire theme park community is too posh to push.
Non Fiends about the Earth Greens are also starting to understand that it’s not just about them – often hard in a community marked by a relentless boosterism and a sense of righteousness higher than the Shard. Painting faces and playing songs won’t change the minds of UK government officials in office for the next five years. Childish antics won’t convince voters, concerned with a public health service and state schools that rich greens don’t use anyway, to cut those services to feed an often insatiable green subsidy maw. Greens may want to save the earth of 2050, but the vast majority of people count themselves lucky to make it to the end of the month. Another name for them is voters.
The flip side of austerity is that the sting of cuts can be ameliorated by expansion of the tax base, where the arrival of a shale industry can help everyone. It’s noteworthy that both Cuadrilla and Ineos still talk about the possibility of a UK shale industry by 2019 – the year before the next election. We’ve also seen talk of a Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF), although that cupboard may be as bare in the future as it is now. The entire point of exploring for shale is to discover the unknown. Finding shale could transform things. Not finding shale will also transform the renewables debate. The existence, or not, of shale resources can be settled by 2020. It helps the nation, and the planet if UK shale goes not only from resources to reserves, or exploration to production, but also if after all this aggravation it isn’t discovered. The uncertainty hurts everyone.
The UK national debate about energy and shale has to cancel out local selfishness. The resource, and the tax revenues it can provide, belong to all of us. All of us include Greens. If they want it to.
The UK onshore industry has been trying to flog a dead golden gift horse to the UK government for too long. It’s not their job to tell the government how to spend the revenue, if they are ever allowed to look for it. But Greens have a long history of telling the government how to spend money. The emergence of a shale industry and a SWF could provide a source of revenue that enables and accelerates renewables.
Greens seem to be unable to decide if their narrative is one where renewables beat fossil fuels on cost, or one where subsidies are still needed. It may be both, in which case shale revenues present an opportunity to be earmarked for expansion of renewables and R+D in technologies currently considered immature.
Not even looking solves nothing.
Editor’s Note: This is a condensed version of a longer story that appears on No Hot Air. Read it all here.