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Two months since COP21, where are we now?

RobertLowe21 January 2016

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In December 2015 immediately following the publication of the COP21 Paris Agreement I wrote a short note on the competing reasons for pessimism and optimism.  What follows expands on that theme. I am going to focus on three things: COP21, the confirmation that 2015 has been the warmest year on the instrumental record, and continued reports that coal consumption in China may have peaked. (more…)

Decision-Making in the Face of Uncertainty: Jim Watson Discusses The Future of UK Carbon Reductions at UCL

Melissa CLott17 December 2014

This December, Professor Jim Watson spoke at UCL on the topic of decision-making in the face of uncertainty. As the lead author of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) synthesis reportUK Energy Strategies Under Uncertainty” Professor Watson discussed key technical, economic, political, and social uncertainties in the UK’s low carbon transition.

To date, the United Kingdom has met the targets set out in its carbon budgets, moving the country closer to its 2050 goal of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels. But, existing uncertainties lead to questions regarding the achievability of future carbon budgets, as was shown with the controversy surrounding the 4th carbon budget (2023-27). When the budget was originally passed, it came with the condition that it should be reviewed. Only recently has the government accepted the recommendation from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that the budget should not be relaxed.

In his talk Professor Watson discussed uncertainties facing the future of the UK low carbon transition and the impacts of these uncertainties on decision-making. His presentation was largely based on a recent UKERC report that not only focused on current uncertainties but also provided a list of steps that could be taken to either reduce the uncertainty itself or its potential impacts.

Note: UCL Energy Institute’s Steve Pye, Nagore Sabio, Neil Strachan, and UCL ISR’s Christophe McGlade also contributed to this report.

The presentation emphasized uncertainties in the future of electricity generation, heat, and transportation in a national low carbon transition (slides found online here and video found here). But, according to Professor Watson, the report also covered topics like energy efficiency and impacts on ecosystem services. Overall, the UKERC’s work came to seven major conclusions (paraphrased below):

  1. Electricity decarbonisation is essential in the shorter term

Power sector decarbonisation by 2030 is essential if the UK is to meet carbon emissions targets and also minimise the costs of doing so. As this process will require large amounts of capital investment, the question of capital availability is important. While these is not necessarily a shortage of available capital in absolute terms, funding is not boundless and electricity decarbonisation investments must compete with other investment options. In turn, changes to policy frameworks, market structures and business models may be needed to attract that capital to the UK power sector.

  1. Limited existing technology options for large-scale, low-carbon electricity

There are currently a limited number of options for large-scale low carbon electricity generation technologies that can have a significant impact on electricity sector decarbonisation before 2030. Furthermore, all of these options face economic, technical and political challenges. According to the report, “given the financial resources required and the political tensions with some of these technologies, it will be tough for the government and industry to maintain momentum on all of them. It is therefore essential that any decisions to prioritise particular technologies are evidence based.”

  1. For heating and transport, electrification might (not) not be the best route

Much of the focus in decarbonizing transportation and heat has been placed on electrification. However, it is not yet clear if this is the best route for reducing emissions in these sectors. In turn, emphasis should be placed on continuing experimentation, demonstration and learning for each potential option. This learning process should include both technical and non-technical factors (e.g. consumer attitudes, business models, regulatory frameworks).

4. Energy efficiency can buy time

Should the deployment of low-carbon technologies struggle, energy efficiency can buy time and assist in meeting carbon goals. Efficiency projects are also an effective way to reduce consumers’ bills. Therefore, action to increase energy efficiency should be a short-term priority.

  1. Public engagement is essential

Engagement with people and communities is an essential component of the UK’s low carbon transition. Genuine engagement is needed so that public attitudes to energy system change – and not just to individual technologies – are taken into account in this transition. This engagement should also focus on how the shift to more sustainable energy systems should be organized and paid for. This approach could not only increase the chances of public support for change, it could also open up possibilities for compromise

6.   Delay is risky

There are significant risks to scaling back the UK’s low carbon ambitions, as some have advocated including not only prolonged reliance on a fossil fuel based energy system but also the resulting exposure of consumers and the UK economy to the potential impacts of high fossil fuel prices. However, under the current low carbon transition plan, natural resource issues – including controversies related to shale gas and biomass – are also important and may limit the extent to which they can be developed and used.

7. Implications for ecosystems is unclear

The transition to a low carbon energy system will have uncertain implications for ecosystems, both in the UK and globally. While this report presents evident suggesting that low carbon technologies will have fewer and/or less serious impacts than fossil fuels, it also states that the evidence base is weak and that significant further research is needed.

Climate Change and Water: Stores have a response in store

SimonDamkjaer5 March 2014

Blog by Simon Damkjaer, UCL ISR PhD student

Substantial increases in the combustion of fossil fuels over the 20th Century have led to a shifting climate, whose impacts on global water resources are best experienced through changes in the global hydrological cycle.  As part of a series of posts related to the 2013 UCL Energy and UCL ISR Climate Week, this blog post provides an overview of the most direct impacts of climate change on water resources and highlights my Doctoral Research on the importance of hydrological stores under a changing climate.

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Ice sheets and glacier retreats
Climate change has been popularly coined “Global Warming”, and as the name itself suggests, means rising temperatures.  The first way, in which rising temperatures impact global water resources is through the transfer of freshwater from a state of solid snow and ice into water as a fluid state.  The ice-sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have been melting at alarming rates over the past decades [1], which has led to an increase in the mean rate of sea-level rise of 3.3 mm/year relative to a 20th Century average of 1.7 mm/year [2].  The effects of rising sea levels, simply put, will exacerbate the risk of storm surges at coastal areas.

Furthermore, snowfall over the polar ice-sheets is predicted to be reduced.  This, in combination with melting ice-sheets, will decrease the ice-sheets’ albedo effect – that is the amount of surface that deflects incoming solar irradiation.  A reduction in albedo effect risks triggering so-called feedback mechanisms, a system of circular loops, in which the warming of the global surface is enhanced, as less incoming heat is reflected due to a reduction in albedo which is caused by ice-sheet retreat due to rising temperatures and so forth.

Although alpine glaciers are currently melting at rates three times lower than that of ice-sheets, their impacts are still felt through effects on river flow, whose influence range from moderate in mid-latitude basins, to major influence in very dry basins.  The main issue related to an increase in glacier melt rate is that it causes a mismatch and unpredictability in the timing of dry period river flows, which has implications for access to water for agricultural purposes.

Precipitation, Evaporation and Transpiration alterations
The second way in which the global water cycle is affected by a shifting climate is experienced by the ability of hotter air to hold more water, which in return affects precipitation and evaporation rates.  The effects of increasing precipitation rates are felt at two extremes.  At the one end, rainfall events will be more extreme, short-term and variable, which will lead to increased run-off and thus higher flood risks.  At the other end, the intervals between these short-lived and heavy rainfall events, will get longer, which increases drought risks.
As temperatures rise, more water evaporates back into the air, which means less water availability for crops – “less crop per drop”.  Additionally, from a biological point of view, higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere, cause terrestrial plants to transpire less, thus lowering the amount of water they use – “less drop per crop”.    It, therefore, becomes evident that the impacts of climatic changes will have severe implications for food security in the future.

Uncertainty: a key challenge
The biggest challenge to the water resources community in modelling the impacts of a shifting climate on water resources is the extreme uncertainty associated with the exercise.  Apart, from the general well-known processes, how these shifts will affect water’s wider environmental interconnectedness still remains unclear.  In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have taken a long time to properly include the effects of climate change on water resources into their annual reports, which is evidenced by only dedicating ten pages in their 4th Annual Report.  The reason for this has not been to downplay the importance of water, whose scarcity indeed was declared the second biggest global risk at the 2013 World Economic Forum, but simply because predicting the effects of climate change on water resources, continues to prove difficult, particularly on groundwater, where data is scarce.

The importance of stores
The effects of climate change on the global hydrological cycle may appear to only lead to situations of disadvantages.  However, studies from East Africa [3], which my Doctoral Research is grounded in, suggests that climatic effects in this part of the world, will cause an intensification in rainfall, which benefits groundwater recharge.  As research in the domain increases, so does the realisation that our understanding of groundwater resources remain limited.
Groundwater stores will become increasingly important in the future, as they possess a slower response-time to climatic shifts than that of surface water.  These resources, therefore, should be considered a key adaptation strategy to a shifting climate.  However, a history of legislative neglect of the resources, means that notions and understanding of sustainable management and utilisation of groundwater stores remain in their infancy.  Thus, it remains to be seen what the water the resources community has in store for the future.

[1] Rignot et al. (2011), Geophys. Res. Lett., vol. 38, L05503

[2] Nicholls and Casenave (2010), Science, vol. 328, 151 7-1520.

[3] Taylor et al. (2012) Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2, doi: 10.1038/nclimate1731