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De-carbonisation of Britain – terrific, but will it be delivered?

Yesterday’s announcement that Ministers have decided to accept in full the proposed 4th budget of the Government’s advisory body, the Climate Change Committee, is very welcome. It means putting the country on course to cut carbon emissions from 550m tonnes a year now to some 390m tonnes by 2027 – a cut of 29% – as a mid-way marker to a reduction target towards about 200m tonnes by 2050. What this amounts to is the systematic replacement of the fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – by renewable sources of energy, mainly wind and solar power, wave and tidal power, carbon capture and storage of carbon emissions from remaining coal and gas power stations, and perhaps some nuclear energy. It’s the right decision, but will it actually be carried through? There are good reasons for having doubts.

Three grounds for scepticism stand out. One is that over the last 20 years there has been only a very slight reduction in carbon emissions during the boom years, and the only significant cuts have been caused by the collapse of growth in recessions. The reductions have been nowhere near the level required for Britain to get on the trajectory which will lead to 80% cuts (compared to a 1990 baseline) by 2050, which is the agreed target. Will a Tory government face down industry (strongly backed as we have already seen by the Treasury and BIS Departments) to reach such a radical target when no previous government has done so? At best, it seems unlikely.

The second is that on almost all the other ten environmental targets espoused by the Government the result has so far been poor or indeed very poor. The ‘green deal’ designed to insulate Britain’s homes and make them more energy efficient will, according to polls, only get taken up by 7% of households if interest rates are no higher than 6%, but they will probably be 8-10%. Green laws have been labelled red tape by the government and may largely be axed in a bonfire of environmental regulations. The so-called Green Bank is not being allowed to operate like a real bank, by raising money in the markets and issuing green bonds. Because the government supports an ultra-liberal energy market, it won’t intervene adequately either to produce green electricity or to lift people out of fuel poverty or to prevent the energy companies exploiting customers with excessive price rises. Selling off the nation’s forests was a disaster that forced a U-turn, and culling badgers as the answer to bovine TB may well go the same way.

The third ground for concern is whether there is a real intention to decarbonise Britain or alternatively to try to achieve the carbon emission reduction targets by carbon offsets abroad, which is in effect cheating on the real objective. This is a get-out-of-jail-free card which should never be used. One of the worst provisions of the Kyoto Protocol (demanded by the US as a condition for signing up) is that companies that invest in cleaner technology in, say, Asia or Africa can then use the carbon credit to meet the domestic target in the UK. If that loophole is now going to be widely used, then Cameron’s latest over-puffed claim of a ‘historic climate change deal’ is nothing more than a scam.

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