Not all low-carbon energy pathways are environmentally “no-regrets” options

D. Konadu, Z. S. Mourão, J. M. Allwood, K.S. Richards, G. M. Kopec, R. A. McMahon, R. A. Fenner

Water and land requirements for UK energy pathways to 2050 were estimated. The Higher Nuclear, less energy efficiency pathway has the highest land use impact. Pathways with high carbon capture and storage have the highest water use impact. Only the Higher renewable pathway has a ‘no-regrets’ environmental outcome.


Energy system pathways which are projected to deliver minimum possible deployment cost, combined with low Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, are usually considered as ‘no-regrets’ options. However, the question remains whether such energy pathways present ‘no-regrets’ when also considering the wider environmental resource impacts, in particular those on land and water resources. This paper aims to determine whether the energy pathways of the UK’s Carbon Plan are environmental “no-regrets” options, defined in this study as simultaneously exhibiting low impact on land and water services resulting from resource appropriation for energy provision. This is accomplished by estimating the land area and water abstraction required by 2050 under the four pathways of the Carbon Plan with different scenarios for energy crop composition, yield, and power station locations. The outcomes are compared with defined limits for sustainable land appropriation and water abstraction.

The results show that of the four Carbon Plan pathways, only the “Higher Renewables, more energy efficiency” pathway is an environmental “no-regrets” option, and that is only if deployment of power stations inland is limited. The study shows that policies for future low-carbon energy systems should be developed with awareness of wider environmental impacts. Failing to do this could lead to a setback in achieving GHG emission reductions goals, because of unforeseen additional competition between the energy sector and demand for land and water services in other sectors.