Take the blue pill

New progas report presents alternate reality

In the movie the Matrix, Morpheus invites Neo to choose between two pills. Taking the red pill will allow Neo to escape from the Matrix and fight for freedom in the real world. If he takes the blue pill he will wake up in his bed and continue to enjoy the convenient fiction he has always known as reality.

A new IHS CERA report released today (‘Sound Energy Policy for Europe’) has the ring of truth about it. Crucially, it once again shows that current renewable energy and efficiency policy together would help cut EU emissions by around 30%, and that the EU emissions trading system is simply unable to keep up. It should face changes such as a tighter cap.

But in anticipation of the release of the European Energy Roadmap 2050 (now expected on 13 December) the main questions revolve around technology options to decarbonise.  IHS CERA creates a ‘cost-emissions trade-off matrix’ to examine them. Within the matrix ‘the costs of decarbonisation need to be recognized and balanced against the expected benefits’.

Faced with the daunting prospect of investigating all of the complexity of this matrix in depth, the report then offers the blue pill – natural gas.

Gas cuts costs. It is readily available. It is environmentally friendly. It balances renewable power. The siren song is enticing, because it is so close to true…

…but it involves swallowing a convenient fiction.

First is the subtext that we could save a lot of money and bother with renewable energy if we just use as much gas as possible. Total emissions reductions would fall short of our current 2050 goals, but cost and CO2, the report notes, can be traded off against each other. Readers are left to connect the logical dots about cutting our ambition, rather than our emissions.

But in what frame of reference are such trade-offs acceptable? We are contending with ecological limits that don’t negotiate. IHS CERA make no attempt to discuss the costs or consequences of insufficient action.

The report further argues that there is no cause for alarm about gas prices and supply.  But where will this gas come from? The gas industry projects it will increasingly come from unconventional sources. But using shale gas means putting local environments at risk. Further, the supposed climate-friendliness of gas, particularly shale gas, may well be based on a fictional accounting of emissions that overlooks the full life-cycle impact due to leakages.

So does this mean we should swallow the red pill instead?

No, not exactly. One should, in any case, avoid taking any non-prescription medicines offered by men wearing dark glasses and leather trench coats inside abandoned warehouses. And in fact the choice isn’t so clear cut. IHS CERA admits their matrix isn’t reality – it is based on ‘pure’ cases designed to show the boundaries of what’s possible. There are helpful aspects to this report, and it plays a role in the vigorous debate we need about how to achieve decarbonisation in a way that is financially, environmentally and socially acceptable. Policymakers should therefore take the useful messages to heart, but bear in mind the wider reality in which this matrix is situated. It’s the tougher road to follow, but it ultimately leads to big box office returns. I mean, saving the planet.

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