Record sunshine in May, a decent breeze and a nation in lockdown have, it seems, got what it takes to get the UK heading in the direction of its ambitious zero emissions goal.
Earlier this month, Britain hit a brand new record for the longest period without coal power since the Industrial Revolution. The last coal generator came off the system at midnight on 9 April, meaning that today, another week on since hitting that new record of a full two months of coal-free power, we are still coal free.
But you don’t have to go back very far for the previous record. That was set at 6.10am on Tuesday 28 April, just a month and three days into lockdown. According to the National Grid ESO, the previous pre-pandemic record we managed was just 18 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes set in June last year.
So nationwide lockdown may be undeniably damaging for the economy, but it seems to be very good news for the environment indeed.
While we might seem to be putting the kettle on more to make endless cups of tea, constantly charging-up our phones and laptops ready for back-to-back Zoom calls and filling every spare waking hour with Netflix boxsets, we are still actually using less energy than usual.
With offices shut, many factories still operating at minimum levels, high streets having largely closed down and only minimum energy levels being used to keep deserted cinemas, theatres, leisure centres, gyms and even schools and university buildings ticking over, demand has dropped off the bottom of the scale.
Overall, electricity demand in Britain has plunged by up to a fifth since the UK government followed other countries by imposing a lockdown at the end of March. It’s a situation that analysts have described as unprecedented in the 20-year history of the current energy market structure.
An increasingly historic-looking system it is. Coal has been an integral part of Britain’s electricity system since 1882, but there is now increasing pressure to switch away from fossil fuels. Not least in order to meet the terms of the 2015 Paris climate agreement; the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate change agreement, adopted at the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015, the main aim of which is to get all countries working towards keeping global warming well below 2°C.
The UK is aware of the problem and the need to do something about it. And we are trying. Since 2008, the UK has cut the carbon content of its electricity generation at the fastest rate of 25 major economies, ahead of Denmark, the US and China, according to Imperial College London and energy consultancy E4tech.
However, environmentalists say that still not enough is being done. They say that global emissions of carbon dioxide need to be declining by 3% a year if we are to meet the Paris agreement, but instead they are still rising. In 2018 they reached a record high, with China and India burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels, not less.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said earlier this year that his government would bring forward a deadline for ending coal power in Britain from 2025 to 2024. But while political and environmental pressure mounts, the onus to help make Britain a world leader in this field, still rests heavily on the shoulders of the oil giants, BP and Royal Dutch Shell.
And they are clearly struggling with the challenge. Not only when it comes to how they escape from having always been so reliant on fossil fuels and make the move to something altogether greener, but also how they do that and keep customers, investors, politicians and environmentalists happy. All at the same time. And, I think its’s fair to say, they have a long way to go; on the environmental front at least.
ClientEarth says adverts from fossil-fuel companies like Shell and BP should come with climate change warnings or be banned. The charity, which takes legal action to protect the environment, argues that the oil majors often present themselves as “part of the climate solution”, but it says their ads should come with a “tobacco-style warning”.
The burning question remains - how does a company that generates most of its profits by meeting global demand for oil and gas, navigate the future when the tide is rapidly turning against fossil fuels?
Just this week BP said it was significantly reducing the value of its oil and gas assets with the pandemic expected to both to significantly depress energy demand and at the same time speed the shift to cleaner power sources.
Pressure on the likes of Shell and BP is only going to grow, not diminish as we get closer to that 2024 deadline. And it poses a very real dilemma for them and those who invest in them.
New BP chief executive Bernard Looney has already openly acknowledged that the Covid-19 crisis was “adding to the challenges of oil in the years ahead”, with travel bans and lockdowns slashing consumption.
But the likes of Shell and BP are far from alone in their struggle. Ironically too, it seems a swifter-than-anticipated shift into renewable energy could be causing a problem for National Grid which has been responsible for matching electricity supply with demand and keeping Britain’s lights on since its privatisation in 1990.
A perfect combination of sunny weather with lights winds has generated a glut of renewable energy. And National Grid, built to cope with slow, clunky fossil fuel-generated energy is struggling to stop the system being overwhelmed by a surplus of supply when demand has fallen so markedly.
A nice problem to have, maybe, at least from the environmentalists’ point of view, but for National Grid, much like Shell and BP, the legacy of its reliance on fossil fuels is proving problematic.
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