Intelligent Energy

Britain's carbon-light future

Britain's carbon-light future

Posting in Energy

Wrangling over, the government announces one of the world's most ambitious CO2 reduction plans. But there's a catch.

For those of you on the edge of your seat after our weekend account of Britain’s carbon policy slugfest, we can now give you the results of the 15-rounder: the UK has established one of the world’s most ambitious carbon reduction targets.

Beleaguered U.K. Energy Secretary Chris Huhne prevailed in his efforts to establish a 60% carbon cut by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. He announced the plan to Parliament earlier this week, after cabinet ministers fought each other into agreement.

But there is a catch. Huhne conceded to a “get-out” clause pushed by fellow cabinet minister, Business Secretary Vince Cable. The clause calls for a review of the policy in three years, giving the UK a chance to lighten the reduction if other European countries impose less strict emission policies. Cable was concerned that a 60% cut would put Britain at an economic disadvantage if other governments were more lenient on CO2.

The European Union’s commissioner for climate action Connie Hedegaard hailed the announcement, telling the Guardian newspaper that it shows that economic growth and strong climate action can co-exist. "This is a recognition that to be very ambitious on public spending [cuts] does not mean you can't be ambitious on climate change target,” she said. The UK is in the midst of intense budget cuts during its post-recession economic recovery.

In the run-up to Huhne’s announcement, environmental groups including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund had complained vociferously to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron that he and his government were putting business development ahead of green issues. Friends of the Earth had issued a scathing report saying that Cameron had all but abandoned his commitment to make his UK government “the greenest government ever.” In a testy debate, some cabinet ministers like Cable opposed a strict 60% as too high.

The donnybrook pitted party member against party member, as both Cable and Huhne are members of the Liberal Democrats, the minority party that rules in coalition with Cameron’s Conservatives.

In the midst of it, industrial companies threatened to move production abroad. Industry continued to flare up after Huhne’s announcement. The Guardian quoted Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF, a leading manufacturing industry trade group, as saying, "This is a bad decision for manufacturing.”

The 60% by 2030 reduction is the latest stage in the UK’s already declared goal to hit an 80% reduction by 2050. The plan announced by Huhne is the country’s fourth, 5-year “carbon budget,” and applies to the years 2023-2027. It sets an average 50% reduction during those years. The first 5-year budget began in 2008. The sum total of the 4 budgets would lead to a 60% reduction by 2030.

It remains to be seen how much teeth the plan has in forcing companies to abide by the reductions.

Meanwhile, what is clear is that Huhne now faces a police investigation into allegations that he pressured someone else to accept driving license penalty points for Huhne’s speeding offenses. Huhne denies any wrongdoing, and has welcomed the investigation.

Photo: UK Dept. of Energy and Climate Change/Flickr

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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