Disaster gas

In December 2011, the Government announced plans to approve the building of 30 new gas-fired power stations. Despite overwhelming evidence that we’re rapidly heading towards catastrophic climate change, these plans rip up the Government’s own legally binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions; they will actually make us even more dependent on fossil fuels in 2030 than we are now.

Increasing our reliance on gas at this stage would be economically and environmentally disastrous. 84% of homes already rely on gas for heat, and gas already provides almost 50% of electricity. Moves to increase this reliance are the result of powerful lobbying from the energy companies, who profit regardless of whether carbon emissions and gas prices rise. This dash for gas makes no sense for the rest of us.

Climate change isn’t going away. In 2012 the Arctic melted more than ever before in recorded history; severe drought in the US caused global food prices to soar, and at home flooding in June (following a hosepipe ban in February) devastated local communities. It’s those whose lives are most precarious who will bear the brunt of the worsening situation.

Our target of 80% emissions cuts by 2050, set by the 2008 Climate Change Act, is based on only a 60% chance of avoiding two degrees of global warming, an internationally recognised tipping point for catastrophic climate change.

Decarbonising the electricity system, which produces 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions, is widely recognised as the most cost-effective and viable way to kick-start this transition. With a fifth of the UK’s electricity generating capacity expiring in the next decade, we have a golden opportunity to replace it with something better.

Gas isn’t the answer. Once extraction, which is becoming increasingly energy intensive, and transportation are taken into account, gas isn’t that much cleaner than coal. The Government’s independent climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), have stated that the low carbon grid of 2030 should produce no more than 50g of CO2 for every kilowatt hour of electricity generated. Gas produces 350g CO2 for every kilowatt hour at the point of generation.

Figures from Ofgem show that in 2011 the average UK energy bill rose by £150, with £100 of this due to the rising cost of gas. The Committee on Climate Change calculates that from 2004-2010 rising wholesale gas prices added £290 to bills, compared to £30 for investments in low carbon generation.

This winter, five of the Big Six energy companies hiked their energy prices by up to 10.8%. Again, this was overwhelmingly due to rises in the wholesale price of gas, with British Gas Managing Director, Phil Bentley, explaining that: “Britain’s North Sea gas supplies are running out and British Gas has to pay the going rate for gas in a competitive global marketplace.”

The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) recently explained that: “even if you forgot about carbon momentarily, look at European gas price projections. They all disagree on the number, but they all agree on the direction – up.”

With UK gas production falling, we are already increasingly reliant on gas imports, which have been overwhelmingly responsible for driving up energy bills and forcing people into fuel poverty. For every 1% increase in energy prices, another 40,000 people are pushed into fuel poverty, forcing them to choose between heating and eating. Building even more gas power stations will only exacerbate this appalling situation.

Despite what climate sceptics and lobbyists say, shale gas extraction will do little to rectify this. Even the Government has said it doesn’t see shale gas as a ‘game changer’ and energy companies such as Shell, Centrica and RWE npower have said they think UK levels will be low and make little difference to gas prices.

Renewables are continually dropping in price, with onshore and offshore wind estimated to be cost competitive with gas by 2017 and 2025 respectively. Locking ourselves into gas dependence well into the 2040s makes no sense for people, or our climate.

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John Gummer, Chair of CCC, recently wrote to the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, warning that the Government’s dash for gas could be illegal: “extensive use of unabated gas-fired capacity… in 2030 and beyond would be incompatible with meeting legislated carbon budgets.”

In the face of climate meltdown, and with better, cleaner options on the table, ‘slightly less polluting’ just isn’t going to cut it. Ultimately, gas is still a fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are a highly polluting finite resources, which centralise power in corporate hands, and are responsible for immeasurable conflict and local environmental damage in the regions they come from. It’s time for something better.