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International Low-Carbon Energy Policy

An introduction

A lesser-known area of DECC’s work is in international low-carbon energy policy.  UK media coverage is currently being given to an imminent milestone in global population expansion: there will soon be seven billion of us.  To meet even the basic needs of seven billion people requires a prodigious quantity of energy.  And whether you favour supplying that energy through the continued exploitation of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves or through the development of cleaner, lower-carbon and more sustainable alternatives, one thing is certain: no matter how efficiently or cleanly we use it, sooner or later fossil energy will run out.

With an eye on the longer term, indefinite reliance on fossil fuels is a no-brainer.  So even if human-induced climate change were not part of the equation – and I believe very firmly that it is – I think that logically, the world needs to be committing resource not only into sources of energy alternative to fossil fuel, but also into significantly improving the efficiency of our energy use.  And promoting these two key areas forms a significant part of the work of DECC’s international low-carbon energy policy team. 

There are seven of us in the team and between us we support the UK’s international low-carbon energy policy objectives through multilateral fora like the G8, the G20 and the UNFCCC climate negotiations. 

One of the team’s current priorities is the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM).  The CEM was established in 2010 and is now an annual meeting of energy ministers, intended to help take forward the rapid scaling-up of clean and low-carbon energy technologies on a global scale.  CEM membership currently extends to 22 countries including the UK, who between them account for around 80% of global energy demand.  The CEM caters both for demand-side and supply-side technologies: from electric vehicles, solar, wind and carbon capture and storage,  to super-efficient appliances, best-practice and knowledge-sharing.

The next – third – CEM will be held in London in April next year and we’re expecting strong representation from member countries.  The private sector will also play an important role at the meeting because although governments can implement the policy frameworks necessary to encourage and incentivise the scaling-up of technologies, the private sector is where the finance and expertise lie to make low-carbon technology an everyday reality. 

2012 will be the United Nations’ Year of Sustainable Energy Access for All, so the CEM falls at an important time in the global energy story.  Although six months ahead of the meeting it’s difficult to predict outcomes precisely, our team is working hard both across Whitehall and with member governments to create the opportunities necessary for strong outputs next April. 

The CEM is a young process but is already making significant progress:  the technologies it covers have the potential to bring fundamental change to the global energy system, from how energy is produced and delivered to how it’s accessed and used.   In addition, the CEM is the only major forum in the world that brings together key governments to focus solely on clean technology and associated issues.  We’re optimistic that the third CEM will be a significant step along the road to the global deployment of clean and low-carbon energy technology, and that in the longer term the CEM process will play an increasingly significant role in global efforts to meet the energy needs of an ever-expanding population.

Further details can be found at

6 Responses to “International Low-Carbon Energy Policy”

  1. J Coleman says:

    Hear, hear! Undoubtedly, in the long term, a move to a low-carbon industrial processes (particularly energy generation) will prove to be the most important aspect of global policy – even the mildest alternatives to emissions reduction involve global disasters of nigh-biblical proportions, after all.

    I must admit to being regularly confused at some of the terminology that is interchanged in policy areas connected to emissions reduction, though: sustainable, clean, and low-carbon all have different meanings but are generally used interchangeably, not merely in the media but by experts, campaigners, and governments as well.

    Sustainable power generation refers to any power source that doesn’t run out (usually, that doesn’t get dug out of the ground, since the world’s finite, and therefore so are all extractable resources). In the longest-term, human civilisation can only prosper by harnessing renewable energy on a large scale; everything else will run out someday.

    Clean energy refers to all forms of power generation that don’t produce waste as part of the generating process. This therefore excludes all fossil fuels, and nuclear fission; even first-generation fusion processes, such as those being developed by ITER, will produce neutron-irradiated waste. It also excludes other externalities – renewable energy sources are generally low-density, needing large land areas to deploy, and inevitably causing significant ecological disruption as a result. Citizens’ groups regularly oppose wind turbines on the basis of noise and that they ruin the landscape; these are hard to quantify.

    Low-carbon is the most essential term, though, referring of course to all forms of power generation that produce little or no carbon during operation. This includes CCS (Carbon Capture/Sequestration) and nuclear fusion, although the technology is still theoretical, as well as nuclear fission, which is already available to be deployed on an industrial scale.

    All too often the first two terms end up taking precedence over the latter; the three goals are related, but not the same, and sometimes it seems the confusion is deliberate, to provide excuses for inaction, or at least, slow action. CCS technology is ridiculed often because it’s not sustainable, hindering research and development; nuclear fission is loathed because it’s not clean, and many countries are actively involved in taking reactors offline to replace with fossil fuels for dubiously undefined reasons of safety and security (despite nuclear being historically safer than fossil fuel technologies). For the next fifty years, we don’t have to worry about fossil fuels running out; nor do we need to worry about availability of fuel for fission reactors, or fusion reactors once the technology is developed. The urgent short and medium-term goal is carbon emission reduction; sustainability is something that will take major and long-term changes to society to implement, and attempting to do it all now, as part of emissions reduction, risks causing unnecessary delays and complications. There are other risks, too; climate change may leave the UK without many renewable energy resources. Wind power is better in some places than others, and with the world already nearly a full degree warmer than when records began (and the increasing likelihood of a further degree to come even if all human emissions ceased right now), climate change is almost certainly going to alter where the wind farms need to be – pretty bad if they’re already built. Likewise, ocean currrents can shift, rainfall patterns can dry hydroelectric reservoirs out, sea level rises can swamp tidal and wave generators, and even increased cloud cover in the sahara could impact the potential of CSP or photovoltaic cell deployment to collect solar energy.

    In a shifting climate, many of the resources that the UK in particular would have to rely on are under threat from climate change. For energy security, the UK would need to use an industrial-scale baseline generation technology; the only renewable source that meets the description is geothermal energy, and there are a great many unknowns regarding its widespread deployment.

    Renewable energy still has plenty of research and development needed before these resources can reliably power the world; it confuses me especially that nuclear fission is actively being rolled back through much of the world as part of a move to a ‘clean, sustainable future’, when the stark truth is that the continually rising carbon emissions produced by human activity pose a far greater threat to the world than nuclear waste or accidents do. I hope that this is a point of discussion by the CEM; in the next decade, nuclear technology remains by far the best hope of rapidly reducing carbon emissions. Renewables will inevitably have their day, but neither the UK nor humanity can afford to wait much longer, fifteen years after the Kyoto negotiations and with carbon emissions still rising rapidly.

  2. roger parker says:

    Chris Hulme and other Ministers talk about the War on Carbon, it being one of the greastest challenges facing Government with Green Deal being,”The biggest home improvement project since the second world war”. But is it all talk, little do. How did we win WW11? – certainly not by this standard of action and delivery.

    CEM highlights the issue of the ever-increasing population and on the news today we learn the UK population is to expand to 70 million by, was it, 2020! If so, is this fact and urgency getting embeded into the silo mind-sets within government ministeries?

    The Green Deal is having a mountainous edifice created to deal with Energy Efficiency (E/Eff), a major plank in abating Carbon. 50 pieces of secondary legislation needed to give effect to it. But in my view it is conceptually flawed shifting capital spending on a property from the property owner to the ocupier (bill payer). This is negatively pertinent to the Private Rented Sector where it is muted tenants will be happy to pay twice, once in higher rent for a more E/Eff property and again for the Finance charge on bills. I don’t think so!! Also, for all, where is the noticable cut in energy bills each quarter for the next 10,15, 20yrs or so with a F.Charge stuck on the bill. And this F/Charge will be really noticed on spring/summer and summer/autumn qtr bills when consumption & energy costs are low.
    At the Third reading of the Energy Bill, this Green Deal was described by the Shadow Energy&CC Secretary, “as a bit of a disappointment…in parts divorced from reality as a nursry rhyme. Much is promised, but little was delivered… is a weak Bill… Gov is swamping CD Providers in red tape. It is a wishy-washy Bill. It has no strategy or plan for delivery”

    My personal fear is that the bureaucrats are so concentrating on process of implementation that they have lost sight of the needs, action and re-actions of drivers of the process – the Household Bill-payer.With an energy hungry expanding population and wishy-washy Carbon abatement legislation putting all our eggs in this one basket, I ask the question – how on earth are we going to win this Cabon War?
    Roger Parker, Commercial Energy Assessor.

    • Jonathan Hood says:

      Dear Roger

      Many thanks for your response. I’m afraid the Green Deal isn’t part of my remit, as I work in international (as opposed to domestic) energy. But I think your question about the “carbon war” is a good one, and scaling-up cleaner – by definition lower-carbon – energy technologies is what we’re trying to do through the CEM I mentioned above. Discussions around energy efficiency will form part of the third CEM meeting, and will also include examining options for financial frameworks like the Green Deal to encourage uptake of energy efficiency measures.

      Do keep an eye on the CEM website if this is of interet to you.

      Best wishes,


  3. Tina says:

    Hello Jonathon

    I’m quite interested in environmental energy and alternative sources of energy. I’m looking into writing a feature for it. Is there anyway i can contact you on the matter? or anyone you may know that has knowledge on the subject. I’d just like a clearer view on what sources are available, particularly in the UK and whether government and the public have a willingness to fully implement them. I’d also like to ask about the possibility of uses wind power, setting up off shore. I’m currently doing my Masters in Broadcast Journalism at the moment and would like to get into environmental policy.


  4. Sandy Taylor says:

    Jonathan, an excellent piece, You are right that it is a “no brainer” that we should be more energy efficient as a society. While international policy is absolutely needed, the role of cities taking leadership is vital. As I work with Eurocities colleagues on this very agenda and as europe develops the “smart city” approach for post 2013, we must make sure cities and the CEM are linked and aware. Thanks

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