View from the UK: Interview with Julia King of the Committee on Climate Change

Julia King (Baroness Brown of Cambridge) is an engineer. An academic career at the University of Cambridge led to senior business and engineering roles at Rolls-Royce. She is an independent member of the House of Lords, chair of the Carbon Trust (a private company that measures, reduces, and certifies carbon emissions), and chair of the adaptation subcommittee of the UK Committee on Climate Change.

The Committee’s annual report to Parliament was released on 10 July 2019 and was widely reported. The following interview with Robert McLachlan was conducted on 8 August 2019.

RM: The UK is often hailed as a leader in cutting emissions. Yet the report says that in the past five years, almost all the progress has been in the power sector; no other sector – transport, buildings, industry, agriculture – has shown progress.

JK: Transport came down a bit in 2008-9, but has now started creeping up again. Buildings have flatlined. They’re the most difficult for us, because of all the gas heating.

Source: Carbon Brief.

RM: So for all the talk of the climate crisis, and all the street protests, we’re not seeing action. Are people ready to take action? Do they realise what needs to be done?

JK: The problem is it has to be led by government, because these are very hard actions for people to take on their own.

One of the the things we asked the Government to do in our Net Zero report in May was that the Treasury should look at how the costs should fall. The problem with homes is that it’s fine for new homes: they only need to tighten up the building regulations. New homes should be so well insulated that you can use heat pumps. In 95% of the country that is perfectly possible. The trouble is that 80% of the homes that we will have in 2050, we already have, and because we have the worst-insulated and possibly worst-built homes in Europe, and also some of the oldest housing stock in Europe – we’re fond of our Victorian terraces – the big challenge is what to do about the 29 million homes we’ve already got. They need triple glazing and much more insulation.

Even then they may not be able to be heated with a heat pump alone, so we are suggesting a combined heat pump-hydrogen boiler system. The boiler would only be used occasionally, heating the house from cold or during a particularly cold winter.

RM: We certainly know about under-insulated houses in New Zealand. Is your committee proposing that owners be forced to insulate their homes?

JK: We’d like to see the Government starting with social housing, and then looking at the carrots and sticks for private houses, which are 60% of the housing stock. For example, people improving their house within two years of purchase could get a rebate on the stamp duty. If people are going to be heating their house with electricity and potentially hydrogen, that is going to cost more than gas. Whereas electric cars are going to be cheaper.

So we’re saying we need to think about how we’re going to redistribute these costs. There will be elderly people and low-income families with higher heating costs who don’t drive. Therefore, we need to look at taxing transport to subsidize heating and insulation. You’ve got to be thinking now about how to make this a fair transition.

RM: To refit every building in Britain could easily take thirty years.

JK: Yes, so you need to start now. The previous Chancellor proposed that no new homes would be connected to the gas grid from 2025. That’s a start. Actually, as well as higher insulation standards, we also need higher ventilation standards, because some of the early sealed homes have become damp with poor indoor air quality. And we spend more time at home, living longer and working from home.

Historically, we’ve had about 2000 heat-related summer deaths; by 2050 we expect 7000. Currently, there is a review of building safety, focussing on fire because of the Grenfell Tower fire, but we also need to think about safety in terms of heat and cold: far more people die in their homes from heat or cold than from fire.

RM: In New Zealand there’s been a debate about how much power the Climate Change Commission should have – it looks like it will be advisory only.

JK: We have this interesting split. The mitigation committee sets carbon budgets, which are then agreed by Parliament, and we monitor the Government’s progress against delivery. The adaptation committee provides advice on risks, but the Government puts together a plan and we review their progress against their own plan and their own targets.

RM: And on the mitigation side, your recent report says that the Government has only achieved one out of twenty-five actions that were needed last year.

JK: True, but on the adaptation side they haven’t achieved any of them.

RM: So what’s the comeback if they don’t achieve the targets?

JK: Nothing at the moment, everyone is distracted! But soon we will be asking the Government and the Environmental Audit and the BEIS (Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy) Committees of Parliament what new policies are proposed. These Committees are very active in calling the Government to account. They can summon Ministers and will typically base their inquiry on our reports. Also, the Government must provide an official response to our report.

RM: Your chair, Lord Deben, said ministers could be sued in court if the failure to act continued.

JK: It’s unlikely that we would do that, but there are plenty of green organisations who could call for a judicial review.

RM: On the whole, do you feel that this steady pressure over a long period, within this framework, will be sufficient?

JK: We need the help of the public and of green groups like Extinction Rebellion and of the press. More and more of the press are now on our side. The BBC has increased their number of environment correspondents from two to something like eleven. It’s for the same reason that the Conservative Party has become committed to the net zero target: young people are very concerned about this, while BBC viewers have an average age of 55 and Conservative Party members have an average age of 69 – well roughly, I probably haven’t got the numbers quite right! So they have to appeal to younger voters and younger viewers. It’s crucial that this interest from young people continues. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have been very helpful.

RM: How significant is the Government’s recent net zero 2050 target?

JK: We were asked to advise on when the UK could reach net zero. We said 2050 was the right date and that it was unlikely we could do it any earlier. But we also said, legislating the target is nice, but there’s no point unless you’re going to do something about it. So we got the legislation, but the change in leadership and parliamentary recess has brought a pause.

RM: The existing carbon budgets already look difficult to achieve.

JK: They are. The 4th budget [51% reduction on 1990 levels by 2025] might be achieved, the 5th [57% reduction by 2030] looks hard. However, the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions now lies below the 4th and 5th carbon budgets. So it would be cheaper to cut even faster. Now that we’ve made progress in decarbonising electricity, we should be accelerating electric vehicle uptake much faster.

RM: The UK has had quite large incentives and taxes on transport, but they haven’t had the effect I would have expected.

JK: Yes. But this year the figures are looking better – overall car sales are down, people are walking and cycling more, but pure electric sales are up. I fear that’s probably because of financial uncertainty over Brexit.

Electric vehicle market share in the UK was 1.9% in 2017 and 2.5% in 2018, which was 11th highest in the world. The UK has about 34 million cars on the road.

RM: My concern is that the incentives are designed based on modeling work which is quite uncertain.

JK: Our advice has been that incentives should have been larger and gone on for longer. Instead they were cut overnight last year, without telling the automotive industry. My view is that their scale and duration should be announced and fixed, and that they’ve got to be used alongside the EU approach of clear, tough regulations restricting the sale of high-emission cars.

RM: There have been headwinds, like dieselgate and the unreliability of fuel consumption figures. You’re also up against consumer behaviour. People would like to buy the biggest car they can afford.

JK: That’s the problem. When we started, even when I did the 2006 King report on decarbonising transport, we still had the fuel price escalator. That was really driving people to buy more fuel-efficient cars. The incentives of zero road tax (that is, zero vehicle excise duty), and a really large registration fee on high-emitting vehicles, they were all effective. Then towards the end of the Coalition government, George Osborne removed the fuel price escalator. Combined with the increased fuel efficiency of all vehicles, people have realised they can now afford to buy a bigger car. And overall fleet improvements have slowed.

RM: Was there any public backlash against all of these taxes and incentives?

JK: There was a bit of a whinge. But because we’d had it for a long time and the annual increase was small, it wasn’t like the gilet jaunes. The problem now is, how do you put it back in?

RM: I was amazed to read that industrial emissions have fallen from 121 to 66 million tonnes. Have you simply moved polluting industry to China?

JK: We have. But Sam Fankhauser’s analysis at the LSE shows that this is mostly due to the cost of labour and land and not green taxes. It would have happened anyway. Unlike Germany, the UK doesn’t subsidise electricity for industry. That’s related to our energy rather than our climate change policy.

RM: On the other hand, at least those industries are generating wealth and producing something useful, unlike people driving around in fossil-fueled cars. Shouldn’t there be a distinction between production and consumption?

JK: The energy-intensive industries do get a discount to compensate for the carbon price being effectively higher in the UK than in Europe. But the rules around who qualifies don’t seem entirely fair. Parts of the ceramic industry don’t qualify, but they are a very intensive industry and are a heritage industry. My understanding is that large brickmakers qualify, small ones don’t.

The long-term solution for industry is carbon capture and storage, CCS, focusing on industrial clusters around steel and cement. We have plenty of places to store CO2, in old oil wells. These clusters would also incentivise the start of the hydrogen economy. The market isn’t going to make that happen.

RM: Your report also says that Britain will need BECCS (Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage) by 2030. That’s very soon, considering BECCS hardly exists yet.

JK: Drax does have a small demonstration plant, but there’s nowhere for them to store the CO2. The Government says they’d like to encourage capture capture and use – but what will all this CO2 be used for? Fizzy drinks and greenhouses? There’s lots of talk of synthetic fuels, but the energy required is enormous. Maybe for aviation, but it’s the last thing you’d try.

For large-scale industrial uses by 2050, the technology needs to be things we know about and are ready for demonstration now. Even the restrained hydrogen economy we need by 2050 – where you do all the energy efficiency you can first, then electrify everything possible, and only turn to hydrogen and synthetic fuels as a last resort – even that involves energy twice the size of today’s electricity system. So get a move on, guys!

I’m a champion for the offshore wind sector as part of the industrial strategy. You can take an offshore wind farm from permitting to operation in three years. So far, the Government hasn’t endorsed the industry’s own target of 50 GW by 2050. But for net zero we might even need 100 GW. Nuclear for baseload would be nice, but there’s a risk we might not get it because of the costs and timescales, whereas offshore wind is proven.

RM: Do you think Britain will start building onshore wind again?

JK: We won’t build a lot, for lack of space, but I hope we will start building it again. the Government is forcing communities that don’t want fracking, to have fracking, and yet communities that say they would like onshore wind are not being allowed to have it.

RM: Has agriculture been a focus of attention in the UK? Your agriculture emissions are similar to New Zealand’s, 49 Mt CO2e.

JK: Yes, we have a lot of dairy and beef. It hasn’t been a focus yet, but it’s going to be really interesting as we move away from the Common Agricultural Policy. Existing subsidies based on production encourage fertiliser use and overstocking. The Environmental Land Management Scheme is in preparation and we want to see it encourage low-carbon management practices, peat restoration as a carbon sink, and vastly more tree planting also for flood control. Overall our farming is uneconomic; about 50% of farm income is from the CAP.

RM: Can landowners be paid to plant trees?

JK: That’s what we’d like to see. So far everything in the agriculture and land use sector has been voluntary. There is also no system to check that farmers are doing what they say they are in terms of soil improvement. The new ‘Public Money for Public Goods’ system could be be quite destabilising. The worry, therefore, is that the Government won’t do anything radical, and will keep handing out subsidies. And although there are relatively few farmers, they are very effective lobbyists. With all the scares that there won’t be any food on the first of November, the farmers are in a strong position.

RM: Let’s turn to international aviation. In Britain people love city breaks and holidays in the sun. Would there be any public appetite for restraining the growth of air travel?

JK: It’s a problem, and young people like those short breaks. Our analysis suggests that for the target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, you could still get 60% growth in aviation. Under net zero you can’t get much growth. It will have to be priced. The main contribution is long-haul flights, especially for holidays and to see friends and family.

RM: On adaptation, your committee said that the Government’s preparations were like Dad’s Army.

JK: That was Lord Deben! I wouldn’t have put it quite like that.

We have an agreed climate change risk analysis for the country. And yet the Government publishes a national adaptation plan that doesn’t even address what it has agreed are the risks the country faces. It has the power to ask critical infrastructure industries about their adaptation plans. At first it was compulsory. More recently it’s been voluntary and many sectors didn’t report.

Interestingly, regarding the Whaley Bridge Dam incident, that type of reservoir had been flagged in the risk assessment as particularly sensitive to heavy rainfall and hot weather. It’s unreinforced, old concrete, in hot sun followed by cold water. The concrete was already cracking and under stress. The owners have never reported their adaptation plans and are not on the list for the future. Another similar reservoir failed in 2007.

On 1 August 2019 part of the spillway of the Whaley Bridge Dam, Derbyshire, was dislodged. 1500 residents were evacuated amidst fears that the dam, constructed in 1840, could collapse. The dam and reservoir will now be completely rebuilt. (Source)

Many telecom companies have not reported, and their networks have failed during floods. The systems have complex interdependencies that previous floods have demonstrated that parts of the ICT sector didn’t recognise. There are chains of guarantees and penalties, but this has led to complacency.

Now that the Met Office can provide probabilities on extreme weather on quite a fine scale, there is an opportunity for proper scenario planning. But because reporting is voluntary, we don’t actually know what analysis they are doing. It’s clear, though, that they’re not preparing for 2ºC and 4ºC, and the risk of 4ºC is still very high.

We know that our food supply chain is very sensitive to climate change overseas. Last year we had the ‘iceberg lettuce crisis’ due to a hot summer in Spain; we had the ‘avocado crisis’ a year or two earlier. Those are just indications of the risk. We said it was a risk, the Government said the market would sort it out. The committee thinks adaptation really does need strong leadership from government.

Also, they should be helping businesses understand what climate scenarios they should be preparing for, especially small businesses. If they do leave it to the market, we need compulsory climate risk disclosure. But that only covers large companies.

Another problem is that the Department of Food and Rural Affairs, which is in charge of adaptation, is nowhere near the top in terms of the power hierarchy in the civil service. DEFRA’s influence over business, housing and so on is small.

This summer we’ve seen that the rail industry, which claims to be very well prepared for climate change, clearly isn’t; parts of our water infrastructure are not prepared; we’ve seen people very uncomfortable in their homes. We’ve now got the NHS to agree to monitor temperatures in hospitals. We’ve got lots of 1970s hospitals with huge plate glass windows, bolted shut, with the radiators on. The NHS spends one to two billion a year dealing with heat-related conditions – and part of it’s due to their hospitals!

The day after this interview took place, there was a widespread power cut in the UK. A routine lightning strike, which the system should have been able to cope with, caused a gas-fired and a wind-powered power station to drop out nearly simultaneously. For reasons still under investigation, this caused the frequency to become unstable, requiring the National Grid operator to cut power to about one million people all over the UK. Knock-on effects to many train operators are also being investigated. In the photo, a staff member guides train passengers with torch light at Clapham Junction station in London. (Source)

RM: What has your experience been like on the Climate Change Committee?

JK: It’s great fun! It’s really, really interesting. It’s a team of twenty-five to thirty, mostly young economists, engineers, climate scientists. The quality of analysis and the quality of discussion on the committee is very high. I do think the committee and secretariat should have more people from industry. We do now have a behavioural economist which I think is important. The net zero report has a pie chart showing that the things that can be done with technology are not much more than a third. The majority of what needs to be done needs people to cooperate.

RM: The way people live is what they pick up from the world around them.

JK: The elephant in the room is that the economy is based on increasing consumption. Continually trying to drive endless GDP growth in the developed and rich world is not only a bad example to the rest of the world, it’s unsustainable.

We need a better way to measure progress and quality of life in developed economies.

Postscript added 22 August. The UK Parliament’s committee on science and technology has now responded to the CCC’s report. (Read their report or the summary in the Guardian.) Their recommendations are for the Government to

  • prepare a strategy to decarbonise heating
  • incentivise home efficiency improvements
  • reduce transport emissions by bringing forward the date to end the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles to 2035 at the latest; extend incentives and charging infrastructure; and decrease reliance on private cars.
  • support onshore wind and solar and review solar buy-back prices
  • maintain, but not expand, nuclear power
  • incentivise greenhouse gas removal and CCS
  • make Net Zero 2050 a principal objective of the energy regulator
  • support individuals and local councils to achieve Net Zero

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