Intelligent Energy

A wild week in British energy politics

A wild week in British energy politics

Posting in Energy

Environmentalists demand carbon cuts from the Prime Minister. Industry threatens to move abroad if he acts. Cabinet chiefs fight. Then, alleged speeding ticket skullduggery dogs the Energy secretary.

Fifteen environmental groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wildlife Fund wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron over the weekend condemning his green record and urging him to approve a plan that would reduce UK carbon emissions by 2030 to 60% of 1990 levels.

The letter comes a week after FOE gave a scathing assessment of Cameron's year-old declaration that he would make his UK the “greenest government ever.” It repeats some of the assertion of last week’s FOE report, noting that the Cameron-led coalition government is putting business development ahead of green issues; that it has failed to create a strong green investment bank; has changed planning in a way that does not protect wildlife and the countryside; and that it has weakened policies for establishing zero-carbon homes.

In an appeal to the business sense of going green, the letter states that the UK has “fallen from 3rd to 13th on the international league table of attractiveness to clean energy investors because of perceived uncertainty about the direction of UK policy.” Noting there is still hope, it continues, Our view is that your Government started with a strong sense of purpose on the environment but is now in danger of losing its way. Getting back on track will require strong leadership from you and your colleagues. This means putting green growth at the heart of your economic recovery strategy… Most critically we urge you to set out the case that a green economy is central to the future prosperity of the UK and not a cost to be endlessly debated and watered down, as if it were a luxury.”

It encourages Cameron to approve a recommendation by advisory body the Committee on Climate Change for a 60% CO2 cut by 2030. The plan would apply from 2023 to 2027 as the fourth, 5-year carbon budget to help Britain cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The first 5-year carbon budget took effect in 2008.

Earlier in the week, Business Secretary Vince Cable clashed with his party colleague, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne, by recommending that Cameron reject the 60% plan. Huhne, as well as Conservative foreign secretary William Hague are pushing for its acceptance. Cable and Huhne are both members of the Liberal Democrat party, which rules in a coalition led by Cameron and his Conservative party.

According to various published reports, Cable wrote to Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg and Conservative chancellor George Osborne opposing the 60% target. "Agreeing too aggressive a level risks burdening the UK economy, which would be detrimental to UK, undermining the UK's competitiveness and our attractiveness as a place to do business,” the BBC quotes from that letter. “It is important that we strike the right balance between our pursuit to decarbonise the UK economy whilst ensuring that UK economic growth and employment is sustained."

Cable criticizes Huhne for assuming that all of Europe will agree to a uniform carbon cap. Failure for that to happen could leave the UK at a fiscal disadvantage if its carbon cap is stricter than Europe’s, he notes. He argues for a weaker cap in the years 2023-to-2027, but one that would still keep the country on track for an 80% reduction by 2050.

The Labour party, ousted a year ago, seized the moment to point out that Cameron’s green government plan was “in shreds.”

"Instead of a government leading the fight against climate change, we have ministers at war with one another," the BBC quoted Shadow Climate Change Secretary Meg Hillier of the Labour party as saying.

Businesses were also whipsawing Cameron. Some threatened to shut down industrial plants and move them elsewhere if the caps are too severe. Others implored Cameron to approve the 60% target, noting that uncertainty over carbon policy would discourage economic growth.

It was probably no political accident that by Sunday, Energy boss Huhne’s job went on the line with reports that police may launch a criminal investigation into allegations that he pressured someone to accept penalty points for Huhne’s own speeding offense, so that Huhne could avoid a driving ban. It wasn’t the quite the lurid sort of scandal that can emerge in the heat of these battles. No one’s pants are down, but certainly the gloves are off as British politicians, industry and environmental groups try to draw up a game plan for the country’s carbon future.

Photo: NewsBiscuit


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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure