Could the green elephant in the room please stand up?

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A report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published yesterday sheds important new light on a major policy controversy that's very rarely broached in public – is pursuing the 2020 renewable target the best way to cut carbon dioxide emissions?

Everyone agrees that we need to cut emissions and that in order to do so we are going to have to get a much higher proportion of our energy from renewable sources than we do today. No controversy there.

So should the government intervene and decide what our future energy mix will look like? This is what the UK target to source 15% of energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020 effectively does. And make no mistake; it's a very challenging target which means we will need to quintuple renewable energy production in a decade. This is, or at least should be, more controversial.

There is a wide range of options beyond renewable energy to cut emissions. These include nuclear power, capturing and storing emissions from fossil fuel-based power generation, a plethora of energy efficiency options and travelling more by train and other forms of public transport.

Yet for fear of being unfairly tarnished a climate sceptic or anti-renewables, few dare broach the question of whether we should be putting so many of our eggs in one basket. Perhaps it would be better to have ambitious emission targets (which we do), strong incentives to invest in low-carbon energy (which we do) and let the market select the best mix of technologies?

And this where the CCC report comes in, there is a very good reason why we should be questioning the wisdom of the 2020 renewables target – cost. A key finding of the report is that the majority of renewable energy technologies are likely to remain considerably more expensive than alternatives forms of low-carbon power generation for several decades.

For example, it predicts that in 2020 offshore wind, the technology many are pinning their hopes on delivering the lion's share of the renewables target, will still be 60% more expensive than new nuclear power stations and, surprisingly, as much as 20% more expensive even than carbon capture and storage. The cost picture for earlier stage technologies like wave and tidal power is even less encouraging.

So should we be pushing so far and so fast with renewable energy? The potential consequences of avoiding the cost issue are significant. We run the risk of piling unnecessary costs on hard-pressed consumers and undermining our competitiveness for no environmental gain. More dangerously still, we could weaken the widespread support for addressing climate change which currently exists.

The previous government committed the UK to the 2020 renewable energy target without any obvious consideration of the alternatives. The CCC's report provides the Coalition with the perfect opportunity for a considered reappraisal of its merits.


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