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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:47 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 3:47 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Browne for introducing this debate. I declare my interest as chairman of the scientific advisory board of Tokamak Energy, a fusion energy development company—fusion has not been discussed much today—and I speak as a former researcher in the scientific challenges of fusion. Later I was director of the Met Office and developed my long-standing interest in the growing threat of climate change. There is also a pressing need for Parliaments around the world to play a strong role to address this threat.

Global measurements show a sharp increase in the average temperature in the atmosphere and ocean since the 1950s and an even sharper rise in carbon dioxide over that time. Over the past 50 years, global climate change has been caused by human-generated carbon emissions and the consequent trapping of outgoing longer-wavelength radiation within the troposphere— that is, the greenhouse effect. This is leading to a likely rise in global temperature of two to four degrees Celsius this century, with huge ecological and societal impacts.

The most effective global climate policies are those driving carbon-free energy generation, which must be accompanied by a dramatic reduction in hydrocarbon combustion. Carbon-free electricity from wind and ocean currents and photoelectric energy from the sun captured by solar panels can all contribute to these policies. However, energy supplied by these methods needs modification for essential continuity and controllability.

Nuclear fission generates electrical energy at large scale by steam-generation systems. These reactors work well, but they face regulatory and public acceptability hurdles. Fusion is of growing importance for low-carbon energy. Fusion could reduce significantly carbon emissions in the 2030s and be an important source of safe, clean energy for centuries to come as the fuel is plentiful and cheap. Currently, the UK has a world lead. The JET tokamak fusion reactor at Culham generated 16 megawatts in 1997. The UK Government continue to back fusion research at Culham and the international ITER project, despite the slow progress, but they seem to be ignoring privately funded fusion development by Tokamak Energy.

We need a sense of urgency to tackle climate change and CO2 emissions, and if we act urgently there will be big economic benefits to the UK as well as environmental benefits to the world. Tokamak Energy, a private company that I have advised, has made great progress in developing compact spherical tokamaks, as pioneered at Culham, and combining them with the latest generation of high-field superconducting magnets. The result will be high performance in compact, low-cost systems enabling a much faster and cheaper path to commercial fusion energy. This company plans to deliver energy to the grid by 2030, about 10 years sooner than the fastest estimate of government and EU projects. The target is to produce 150-megawatt modules to be built in UK factories and shipyards and deployed rapidly around the world in the 2030s.

The heat produced in fusion reactors can be used to generate electricity and could also be used for industrial processes, such as steel making, and to produce hydrogen from water in a highly efficient manner. The oil and gas companies of the future could use the heat from fusion to produce hydrocarbons, absorbing CO2 in the process. Fusion reactors could be mounted on ships, as by mentioned by other noble Lords, leading to massive savings of fuel and carbon emissions. Fusion power systems could be deployed globally and would be safe in the event of natural disasters, for example, the Fukushima event.

The UK FIRES report introduced by my noble friend Lord Browne suggests various options for lower use of carbon fuels. The report is sceptical about carbon capture and storage and prefers lifestyle changes as a low-carbon strategy. Perhaps this is optimistic, since most people do not pay much attention to climate change according to surveys. Using taxation to change behaviour would be regressive and unpopular. Ironically, the UK FIRES report, funded by the EPSRC, does not consider fusion seriously, despite it being a major element in the EPSRC’s energy portfolio. The other factor missing from the report and, indeed, from climate change committee’s reports is any consideration of the rest of the world. It is essential that UK’s programme of moving to becoming carbon-neutral collaborates with other countries. These are the main points we should be considering.