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The Guardian: Carbon cop-out

With green issues a hot political topic, environmentalists were hoping Gordon Brown's budget would tackle climate change head on. It was certainly on the agenda, but John Vidal looks at the reality behind the rhetoric
Wednesday March 29, 2006
For just a few hours last Wednesday, the broad British environmental movement toyed with the idea that Gordon Brown was transforming himself into Gordon Green. After nine years of saying the environment was important, and then doing little, the supremely confident chancellor appeared to be throwing around green money, green ideas and green initiatives.
“I want the UK's homes and businesses to be the most energy efficient in the world,” he said – and it looked as if he meant it. Micro-power was to get £50m seed money, there were to be tax reforms, drivers of gas-guzzling 4x4s were to be penalised and smaller cars rewarded, 250,000 homes were to be better insulated, biofuels and energy saving encouraged. There was to be a much-lobbied-for annual carbon budget, an ambitious national institute of energy was to be established and waste was to be addressed.
But even as environment groups, local authorities and a newly-committed businesses sector held their breath, it dawned that they had all mostly fallen for the oldest trick of the political game. The consensus slowly emerged that the chancellor had stroked them, told them they were important, handed out a few bones, but left them in the end with little.
Take the money promised – over three years, it later emerged – for micro-renewable technologies such as small-scale wind power, boilers, solar heating and electricity. The chancellor was putting up £50m, he said, “to enable 30,000 buildings in Britain [to micro-generate some of their own electricity]”.
“This is fantastic news,” gushed Gaynor Hartnell, head of renewable power at the Renewable Energy Association. “We were hoping that this would be the year when micro-renewables really took off, what with the publication of the micro-generation strategy, and the minister's obvious enthusiasm for the sector. An additional £50m for the low carbon buildings programme is a welcome sign that the government has been listening to us about the massive potential in this sector.”
Crumbling stock
By the next morning, the chancellor's real scale of ambition was better understood. Even if 30,000 buildings in Britain were converted – again, over several years – that would represent less than 0.15% of the crumbling, energy-leaking British building stock. Solar Century, an ambitious, fast-growing company with a vision to turn every roof and wall in Britain into a mini power station generating photo-voltaic (PV) electricity, was furious.
Chief executive Jeremy Leggett said: “Our competitors [in Japan, Germany and elsewhere] have support programmes for solar PV measured in billions of pounds, not millions. Divide that money by the six technologies [that the government defines as micro-generation] and you come up with less than £5m per year per technology, and that does not include energy efficiency, or the gas micro-CHP [combined heat and power] that the DTI slipped into the supposedly renewables-only programme at the eleventh hour.
“By contrast, Japan has spent an average of £100m a year for 10 years in building its PV industry. California is investing $2.9bn [£1.7bn] over 10 years. Germany pays premium prices for solar electricity, guaranteed for 20 years, financed by a tiny levy on the rates of all consumers. These programmes have the kind of scale and continuity that attract private investors.
“In the UK, we have another drip feed, for a few years. The government continues to fall far short of its rhetoric on the seriousness of climate change. Meanwhile, UK plc continues to lose out in some of the fastest-growing markets in the world, markets that hold the key to energy security and surviving global warming.”
The chancellor may have identified that the environment was one of the great issues facing the country at the moment, and that global warming was top of the agenda, but his attempts to deal with it seemed woeful, said most groups the morning after the budget.
On the plus side, the Local Authority Fund was to be given £20m to “enable 250,000 more homes to become better insulated”. But that amounts to about £87 a home – enough for a roll or two of insulation and one man's wages for an hour.
Modest assistance for householders to increase insulation, an increase in the climate change levy in line with inflation, a voluntary labelling scheme for some energy-using products, a pilot scheme to trial “smart” electricity meters, and a decision to take a proposal to the World Bank regarding a large fund for new technologies for developing countries – all were welcome in their own way, said the chastened environmental groups, but the consensus was that they added up to very little in the face of what scientists say is needed.
Catastrophic impacts
It was left to Tony Juniper, head of Friends of the Earth, to put the chancellor's measures into context: “Carbon dioxide emissions have risen under Labour. They have now reached record concentrations in the atmosphere, and if action is not taken immediately it may soon be too late to avoid catastrophic impacts arising from global warming.
“The measures set out in the budget are not enough to enable the government to achieve its target to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 20% compared to 1990 levels – a promise repeated in the last three Labour general election manifestos. Mr Brown needs to get more serious about climate change before it is too late”.
Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for south-east England, was even more damning: “Given that we're facing a climate catastrophe, Brown is trying to put out a forest fire with a bucket of water,” she said.
The transport reform campaigners felt the most let down. The much-hyped gas guzzler tax increases raised driving costs for some of the richest people in Britain by less than £1 a week, fuel duty was frozen again in deference to the road lobby, and aviation fuel and passenger taxes were not touched – again. While the Treasury continued to back the line that it was waiting for European consensus before it acted on aviation, its officials admitted that a freeze in air passenger duty would result in a “small” increase in carbon emissions and local air pollutants from aviation.
In fact, say many working at the coalface of the British environment, the budget could be defined by what was not in it. There was very little to help people, businesses or councils to waste less or recycle more; barely anything for councils trying to get people out of their cars on to footpaths or cycle tracks; nothing to encourage people to save water in a year of inevitable drought; little to protect landscapes or increase biodiversity; not much for air quality or noise; no encouragement to tighten planning, to force electricity companies to waste less.
As a postscript to the budget, environment secretary Margaret Beckett yesterday announced long-awaited plans to meet climate change targets. But for all the drastic action that Blair has urged other world leaders to take to avoid catstrophe, it was very much business as usual, with the emphasis on real changes being made later. A case, perhaps, of the buck being passed back to Brown.
The energy element
Labour's love of public-private partnerships took on a green tint last week when Gordon Brown announced a new scheme to develop more environmentally friendly sources of energy. David King, the government's chief scientist, hailed the new National Institute for Energy Technologies as “the biggest leap forward for energy research in the UK for the last 20 years”. The partnership aims to raise £1bn of funds, and energy giants BP, Shell and EDF have already said they will be involved.
Details of the new institute are sketchy. The Treasury said it will tackle specific 10-year goals, but didn't explain what those might be – only that they would be “in relation to energy sources and technologies that reduce carbon emissions and contribute to the security of energy supply”. It said public money would be found to match private investment, up to a set limit.
The new institute builds on a broader – but equally vague – initiative called the Energy Research Partnership, which was announced in last year's budget and officially launched in January. Run by the Department of Trade and Industry, the partnership is also intended to “identify approaches and technologies to accelerate carbon reduction while maintaining security of supply”. According to its website, its mission “is to work together towards shared goals and act as a sounding board for, and generator of, ideas”. The DTI has no more details about this scheme either, but says the remit and scope of the new institute will be hammered out “very soon”.
Environmental campaigners are worried that the new arrangement might be a way to leverage more public funds into restarting the UK's nuclear power programme – a government decision on which is expected in the summer. EDF Energy, one of the early backers of the chancellor's new public-private institute, and the company that runs the French atomic power stations, has already said it wants to build up to 10 new nuclear stations in Britain. Sue Ion, director of technology at British Nuclear Fuels is a member of the Energy Research Partnership, but the DTI says it is too early to say what types of energy it will work on.

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