The independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) has today warned unequivocally that the government would breach the Climate Change Act if it pursues Chancellor George Osborne's plans for a surge in new gas investment.
In what will be seen as an explosive intervention in the simmering row between the Liberal Democrats and the Chancellor over whether to include a target to decarbonise the electricity sector by 2030 in the upcoming Energy Bill, the CCC today stated categorically that "extensive use of unabated gas-fired capacity (i.e. without carbon capture and storage technology (CCS)) in 2030 and beyond would be incompatible with meeting legislated carbon budgets".
In an open letter
to Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey, signed by the CCC board including new chair Conservative Peer Lord Deben, the group criticises the "apparently ambivalent position of the government about whether it is trying to build a low-carbon or a gas-based power system", warning that after extensive discussions with investors and energy companies it has become clear current policy uncertainty has created a "very poor" investment climate.
The letter also criticises recent statements from the DECC in support of increased gas investment, which were wrung out of the department by Osborne during long-running negotiations over the future of renewable energy subsidies.
The letter represents a major blow to Osborne, who has been campaigning for the Energy Bill to increase support for gas investment. A leaked letter from Osborne to Davey in July revealed the Chancellor wants to ignore CCC recommendations for the Energy Bill to include a target requiring the electricity sector to decarbonise by 2030 as part of wider efforts to turn the UK into a "gas hub".
Responding to the CCC's letter, Davey stressed that the government was still considering the CCC's proposed 2030 electricity decarbonisation target, but added that "our existing plans are consistent with significant decarbonisation of the power sector".
"A fifth of our power stations are closing over the next decade, and we need to build a diverse mix of all the technologies to keep the lights on and lower our emissions."
However, he again reiterated that new gas capacity would have a role in the UK's energy mix. "After 2030 we expect that gas will only be used as back up, or fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage technology," he said. "But, alongside upscaling of renewables, nuclear new build, and eventually with carbon capture and storage, gas has an important role to play in the transition to a low-carbon grid.
The CCC's letter was widely welcomed by green groups, which urged the government to confirm it will follow the independent committee's recommendations.
The chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA) today made a similar intervention to that of the CCC, warning that a global "dash for gas" could have a "catastrophic" impact on the climate.
Comments from Fatih Birol, detailing how currently low gas prices were putting pressure on governments to curb renewable energy investment. He warned that curbing spending on zero emission infrastructure posed a serious threat to global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"If there are no urgent and bold policies put in place the door to a 2 degrees trajectory, the door to a normal life for us and for our children, will be closed and will be closed forever," he said.