Priti Patel MP, former International Development Secretary, has criticised the big multilateral development banks for refusing to allow UK taxpayers’ money to be used to support energy projects that are not classed as renewable, pointing out that just over a billion people are still without access to electricity.

renewables are important, but the reality is that no country in the world has industrialised using rooftop solar panels

As a major donor to the World Bank, Patel argues, the UK’s voice carries a lot of weight.

Nations have repeatedly stated that they will place their own development ahead of cutting emissions, and they (and their citizens) are going to want electricity that is available around the clock, not just when the sun is shining or when the wind is blowing. Intermittent renewables are not the only option though. The UK government is looking to nuclear to provide it with much of its low-carbon baseload power, France has among the lowest emissions in the EU thanks to the large proportion of nuclear in its energy mix and a number of African countries are considering the use of nuclear power, probably with help from Russia.

Several years ago the UK decided to abolish British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., leaving us reliant on others to build our new fleet of nuclear power stations, though a UK consortium led by Rolls Royce is proposing to develop Small Modular Reactors for which they say there is a very large global market.

But that’s some way off. Priti Patel focuses on the UK’s expertise in fossil fuel technologies such as high-efficiency lower emissions (HELE) coal plants, which emit up to a third less CO2 than traditional coal-fired power stations. However, coal is the most highly emitting of all fossil fuels so even a third off leaves you with high CO2 emissions, higher than those from a gas-fired power plant.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) offers the potential of considerably greater emissions reductions, and is considered by the IPCC to be one of the three main low-carbon energy generation technologies (along with nuclear and renewables), but it’s also the least mature of the three. The last government cancelled its £1 billion CCS competition just before the Paris talks in 2015, a decision that many considered to be very damaging to the UK’s CCS prospects, though a company backed by the UK government has succeeded in capturing (according to the company) 97% of emissions from a coal-fired power plant in India.

A major stumbling block for CCS has always been its cost, and this company says it’s succeeded in cutting the cost of capturing carbon from $60-90 per tonne to $30. Still, why would a generator opt to pay that $30 a tonne if they can simply dump that carbon in the atmosphere for free? A robust price on carbon, one in excess of $30 a tonne, would make this kind of technology a profitable choice for energy generators.

Carbon capture is “vital”

Energy Minister, Claire Perry, says the Government is committed to developing the technology which she calls “vital” in meeting emissions targets:

We’ve been doing a lot of work on this because without that technology we will not achieve our decarbonisation targets, whether it is power generation or in industrial processes. … we want to be a world-leader in the new technology, but we need to do it at the right price.

But what that right price is is going to depend on the price you put on carbon emissions. In the UK, that price is £18 ($25) per tonne of CO2 emitted. According to the CCS Association

first-of-a-kind CCS projects will be subject to higher costs and somewhat greater technical uncertainties. They will therefore need additional incentives as – with the exception of some of the low-cost CCS opportunities – they cannot be developed based on current carbon prices.

They argue for “a long-term support structure equivalent to that which has been given to other low-carbon technologies” – in other words, subsidies. But a policy based on subsidies leaves government picking which technologies it wants to subsidise, whilst an across the board robust price on carbon allows all low carbon technologies (nuclear, renewables and fossil fuels with CCS) to compete on a level playing field.

Since we can’t possibly know what potential these various technologies have, a system in which governments (inevitably swayed by lobbyists) pick what technologies to bet on is risky. As someone once said

Government is bad at picking winners, and losers are good at picking governments