Consumers will need to pay more for energy if the UK is to have any chance of developing the technologies needed to tackle climate change, according to a group of leading scientists and engineers.
In a Royal Society study to be published today, the experts said that the government must put research into alternatives to fossil fuel much higher among its priorities, and argued that current policy in the area was "half-hearted".
"We have adapted to an energy price which is unrealistically low if we're going to try and preserve the environment," John Shepherd, a climate scientist at Southampton University and co-author of the report said. "We have to allow the economy to adapt to higher energy prices through carbon prices and that will then make things like renewables and nuclear more economic, as carbon-based alternatives become more expensive."
Shepherd admitted higher energy costs would be a hard sell to the public, but said it was not unthinkable. Part of the revenue could be generated by a carbon tax that took the place of VAT, so that the cost of an item took into account the energy and carbon footprint of a product. This would allow people to make appropriate decisions on their spending, and also raise cash for research into alternatives.
"Our research expenditure on non-fossil energy sources is 0.2% of what we spend on energy itself," said Shepherd. "Multiplying that by 10 would be a very sensible thing to do. We're spending less than 1% on probably the biggest problem we've faced in many decades."
He said that the priority should be to decarbonise the UK's electricity supply. Measures such as the government's recent support for electric cars, he said, would be of no use unless the electricity they used came from carbon-free sources.
Though the creation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was a good move, Shepherd said: "We've had a lot of good talk but we still have remarkably little in the way of action."
He cited the recent DECC proposals on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as an example. The department plans to legislate that any new coal-fired power station must demonstrate CCS on a proportion of its output. Once the technology is proven, a judgment made by the EnvironmentAgency around 2020, power plants would have five years to scale up to full CCS.
Shepherd said the proposals were not bold enough. "Really, it needs to be 'no new coal unless you have 90% emissions reductions by 2020'. That is achievable and, if that were a clear signal, industry would get on and do it. It's taken a long time for that signal to come through and now that it has, it's a half-hearted message."
A spokesperson for DECC argued that its proposed regulatory measures were "the most environmentally ambitious in the world, and would see any new coal power stations capturing at least 20-25% of their carbon emissions from day one".
Ed Miliband, energy and climate change secretary, said that a white paper due next month will lay out how Britain will source its energy for the coming decades.
"This white paper will be the first time we've set out our vision of an energy mix in the context of carbon budgets and climate change targets. We have identified ways to tackle the challenges - we will need a mix of renewables, clean fossil fuels and nuclear and we're already making world-leading progress in those areas. It's a transition plan, a once in a generation statement of how the UK will make the historic and permanent move to a low-carbon economy with emissions cut by at least 80% in the middle of the century."
The Royal Society report will argue that energy policy has been too fragmented and short-term in its outlook, with a tendency to hunt for silver-bullet solutions to climate change. "That really isn't the case. What we need is a portfolio of solutions, horses for courses," said Shepherd.
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