Why the government is missing the point in chasing reduced CO2 emissions


The government's relentless pursuit of reducing CO2 emissions is at high risk of failure if it continues to miss the point about the reason for high outputs.

By focusing less on CO2 and more on energy, we would have a much better chance of success in the short term. Current thinking simply fails to differentiate between supply side energy and demand side energy management. Long-term success is less certain and depends on fundamental changes in energy production.

Simply put, demand side energy management - energy efficiency - could meet the short-term greenhouse emission goals tomorrow, if properly implemented and managed. The technology and ‘know-how' exists, but is largely being ignored. The core message here is: 'Focus on energy efficiency and the resulting fall in CO2 emissions will follow.'

The short-term ‘renewable' goals - seven per cent by 2010 - have been missed and the only surprise about this is that no-one is surprised. We're only kidding ourselves if we think that efforts to reduce CO2 alone will meet our obligations and targets, as it's been shown time and again that they won't.

The longer term targets of 80 per cent to 90 per cent reductions will be achieved only if there is a paradigm shift in how electricity (in particular) is produced. We also need to find alternative ways of heating our buildings and replacing internal combustion engines.

There are many clever people working on how this may happen, and untold riches no doubt await those that succeed. Whether or not this will happen in time to meet the so-called ‘legally binding' UK government targets remains to be seen.

In the short term, surely energy efficiency (a buzz word in government spending at present) must be the place to start. It doesn't matter how ‘sustainable' or ‘renewable' your energy source is if you're wasting it. After all, a waste is a waste.

Another reason why chasing CO2 is failing is that, while it is very real (and there is too much of it around), we are being asked to work in a ‘currency' that few people understand. The problem here is that it's largely intangible - you can't see CO2 and you can't in reality buy CO2. It is after all an artificial market - but that's a topic for another day.

Energy, on the other hand, is much more tangible and easy to understand - you know what you're going to get from 1kWh of electricity and, furthermore, you know what it will cost you. But ask me what that means in emissions and what it looks like, and I wouldn't have a clue. This is where it all starts to fall down for short-term targets.

So how can we begin to resolve this? The CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme (formerly the Carbon Reduction Commitment - clue in the name change there) was not a bad start, but since it has become a tax, it's not as engaging as it once was.

Display Energy Certificates can become a strong pressure point for the built environment - the public may not understand the detail behind the ratings, but they certainly understand that the closer to an A, the better. The proof of this is in the white goods market where energy ratings have been around for a while and everyone understands them - it's now impossible to buy a D-rated fridge.

While the dynamics of the built environment may differ from white goods, the principles behind energy ratings are the same and this is a great opportunity to help educate the public about buildings.

Now is the time to drive energy efficiency and reduce associated emissions in order to run our buildings (and other energy consumers) more efficiently. In most cases, the required investment is low and the pay-backs are attractive.

By all means look at generating energy from wave, wind and sun, but don't confuse these energy sources with effective demand side energy management.

Julian Miller is unity services director at energy management company Matrix

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