Moving the UK to a low carbon economy

On Monday of this week I reported on a parliamentary briefing note which discusses greenhouse gas emissions due to information and communication technologies. At around the same time the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology published a so-called “POSTnote” which details changes to the British economy required to meet the emissions targets listed in the Climate Change Act (2008).

After presenting the background of greenhouse gas emissions and the various emissions targets, the briefing note outlines a number of possible transition scenarios that depend on such factors as changes in energy demand, growth in the aviation sector, and the expectations and performance of new technologies. There is then a discussion of the policy instruments necessary to implement such economic transitions.

There are three things mentioned in the POSTnote that grab my attention. The first is that the time required for emissions cuts depends on economic cost, the capacity of the economy to deploy new technologies, and the rate at which people adopt more environmentally sensitive practices. Behaviour and technology are strongly coupled, and cannot be considered separately.

The second issue is the need for flexibility in the system. Accurately predicting the makeup of the economy in 2050 is something of a fool’s game. Lifestyles and technologies are changing so fast that it is impossible to accurately predict where we will be a generation or two down the line.

A diverse portfolio of low-carbon technologies is required that allows the economy to evolve in an environmentally sustainable direction while respecting the population’s needs and desires. Anything else would require centralised and authoritarian command structures.

Government structures and the regulatory system have evolved around existing technologies, and this ‘technology lock-in’ leads to a high degree of inertia in the system. New technologies can only compete with established if environmental, innovation, infrastructure, planning and fiscal policies are coordinated. But how does this sit with the professed need for decentralised decision making and market-led flexibility?

The need here is for joined-up government able to respond dynamically to changing circumstances, while at the same time being proactive and addressing problems that markets on their own may be incapable of dealing with. Is the UK in its current form up to the job?