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In Conversation with Lord Krebs: UK fighting climate change with more nuclear energy

To fight climate change, the UK will invest in renewing nuclear energy. pandaposse/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In Conversation with Lord Krebs: UK fighting climate change with more nuclear energy

Recent floods in the UK have awoken the country to the possibly severe impacts of climate change. Like many other parts of the world, including Australia, the UK will see rising temperatures and increasing extreme weather events such as drought and flooding.

The UK has a legislated emissions target of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The Committee on Climate Change — the UK equivalent of Australia’s Climate Change Authority — is charged with independently advising and reporting on the government’s progress.

Like Australia, the UK is increasing renewable energy production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike Australia, other key strategies in the UK include renewing the nuclear power fleet.

Lord John Krebs, chair of adaptation for the Committee on Climate Change and independent member of the House of Lords, is in Australia to participate in the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research annual forum. He spoke to Rod Keenan from the University of Melbourne for The Conversation.

Read the full transcript here.


Rod Keenan: What do you see as the challenges of adapting to climate change in the UK?

Lord Krebs: On the one hand, too much water: flooding events, coastal flooding, riverine flooding and heavy rain as we’ve seen over the past couple of months.

At the other end of the spectrum, slightly oddly, the UK is is quite water-stressed, particularly in the south east where there is a combination of high population and relatively low rainfall.

So in the long run we expect an increase in long periods of drought, and we expect periods of intense rainfall to become more common. Sea level rise is going to be an issue for low-lying areas, particularly the east coast.

Rod Keenan: How have some of the recent events, particularly extensive flooding, affected how people perceive climate change?

Lord Krebs: In the news coverage and public discourse, people were horrified by the events and the need for emergency action. But over days people began to ask the question “is this something unusual?” So it did then move into a discussion of ‘is this a consequence of climate change’?

You can’t attribute any single event to climate change, but the likelihood is that these kind of extreme events will become more common in the future. So if we’re thinking about how we prepare ourselves to be a more resilient nation, we should be thinking about how we handle these events, and how we can invest to prevent damage.

So I think the public perception is yes, these floods are a sign of things to come in the future.

Rod Keenan: What developments in climate change mitigation have we seen in the UK?

Lord Krebs: Some of the things the government is doing to meet the targets are to do with energy efficiency — home insulation, energy efficient cars and washing machine.

On the electricity generation side, the Climate Change Committee’s key recommendation is to largely de-carbonise the electricity supply by 2030. If you can get there can start running a lot of things off de-carbonised electricity, which creates savings for later years to get to our 80% reduction.

We’re not prescriptive about the precise lengths, but we say you need to do three things. One is invest heavily in renewables. In the UK that has largely meant offshore wind. There’s some onshore wind, and also solar.

The second part is there needs to be renewed generation from nuclear power stations. At the moment the UK has half a dozen nuclear power stations, most of which are ending their useful life, and they provide between 15-20% of electricity. There’s no way you can fill that gap without building new nuclear power stations.

The third element will be continued use of fossil fuel, but with the development of carbon capture and storage — taking CO2 emissions from power stations and pumping them underground. But carbon capture and storage has never been demonstrated at scale.

The government is doing pretty well on renewables. They’re behind target on nuclear. On carbon capture and storage we’re a bit behind, but we’ve now commissioned a number of demonstration works. On energy efficiency measures, the government is rather behind.

Rod Keenan: Is energy security and reliance on Russian gas weighing heavily on Europe?

Lord Krebs: Energy security, or sovereignty, is another very important argument for reducing reliance on fossil fuels. We have some reserves left in the North Sea, and potentially reserves in the Atlantic if technology makes it economically feasible. But that’s a long shot.

With the incredible success of fracking in the US, many people in UK are very excited about the possibility of fracked gas. Areas that have historically had very large coal reserves are also associated with natural gas.

But there’s huge uncertainty about the amount of gas — anywhere from a year to decades; it’s not going to be easy to get out unlike in the US, because the rocks are highly fragmented; and some of the places where gas is likely to be abundant are densely populated or sites of natural beauty.

Rod Keenan: How are Australia’s climate policies viewed in the UK?

Lord Krebs: What we read in the papers in the UK is that Australia is a country likely to be very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. You already have many areas that are water-stressed, and you’ve had some interesting weather events in recent years.

I would have thought Australia ought to be very alive to the risks of climate change, and the need to adapt and play a part in mitigation. The political environment doesn’t seem uniformly positive, so I can see an interesting challenge to maintain momentum.

Rod Keenan: Internationally, we’re aiming for an agreement at the end of 2015 for binding targets. How optimistic are you that we’ll have binding targets?

Lord Krebs: It’s disappointing that we haven’t had a new global agreement since Kyoto. Maybe 2015 will be the year. But in the absence of an agreement, many countries around the world are taking action themselves, including big polluters like China and the US. China has set quite strenuous carbon intenstity targets to reduce its carbon footprint. The US, partly by switching from coal to gas, has reduce emissions and many of the states have emissions targets.

A recent study on climate actions surveyed 66 countries around the world, responsible for over 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. In those countries there were around 500 different pieces of legislation to do with climate mitigation or adaptation. There is a hell of a lot happening out of self-interest.

It may be that a global agreement emerges from a kind of synthesis of national action.

Lord John Krebs is participating in the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research annual forum.

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