UK Government unveils ambitious carbon targets

Posted: 17 July 2009

Author: John Vidal, The Guardian

The UK government has outlined an energy revolution aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34 per cent within only 11 years and set the nation on track for an 80 per cent cut by 2050. It signalled a historic switch away from fossil fuels, which drove the industrial revolution for 200 years, towards a future economy that will depend on renewable and nuclear power.

Ministers hope the blizzard of measures and targets, intended to rapidly cut energy use across electricity generation, homes, transport and industry, will put Britain in pole position among rich countries grappling to tackle climate change ahead of new international agreements. The Low Carbon Transition Plan pledged:

  • 40% of electricity to come from low carbon sources, including new nuclear power by 2020.
  • £3.2bn to be invested by energy companies to improve the poor energy efficiency in UK homes.
  • Smart electricity meters in every home by 2020.
  • Support for ultra-low carbon cars.
  • Cash for households that generate their own energy.
  • 400,000 green jobs.
UK government's carbon budgets
UK government's carbon budgets
The UK is the first country in the world to set itself legally binding ‘carbon budgets’.
The white paper, which is expected to become law by the end of the year, was welcomed by environmental and business groups as an ambitious model for other countries.

But it was criticised by others for falling short of the cuts scientists are demanding, ducking the controversial issue of coal burning and being almost impossible to achieve in such a short time.

Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement, added: "Worryingly, the government has said it can use carbon offsetting [abroad] to meet targets if we fail to cut emissions.

"This is a dangerous get-out-of-jail-free card, which could be disastrous for the climate and for the world's poorest people. The government has to be completely committed to reducing our emissions here in the UK."

All sectors of government have been allocated a carbon budget that will force them to reduce emissions in their areas. The energy industry will make the biggest cuts, reducing emissions by more than 20 per cent by 2020, transport by 10 per cent and the military by 5 per cent.

Each government department will have to come up with detailed plans for cuts in the next few months.

"The budgets are expected to be met through a commitment in law to get 15% of all our energy from renewable sources by 2020," said Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary. "Every business and community will need to be involved. The scale of the task is enormous."

Skegness offshore windfarm
Skegness offshore windfarm
Skegness offshore windfarm. Photo © Dave Hughes
At the heart of the government's plans are giant offshore wind parks. The renewable energy industry will be given £120m to develop offshore wind technologies and £60m will go to marine energy.

In addition, new planning laws now in place should make it much easier to build onshore wind farms, and all new coal power stations will have to be equipped with some degree of carbon capture and storage by 2020.

Deep cuts – 29 per cent by 2020 – are expected to come from households, which currently emit more than one third of UK emissions. Energy companies will invest £3.2bn in the next four years to enable 7.5m households to save energy with insulation and other devices. In addition, all homes will be equipped with a "smart" electricity meter by 2020 and every new home will have to meet stringent new building regulations.

Further grants, said the white paper, will be made available via a "pay-as-you-save" scheme for homeowners to receive loans to insulate their homes. With money repaid by savings in energy costs pilot schemes will be launched next year.

But the paper said the transition to a low-carbon economy would cost many billions of pounds in the next 12 years, a figure the government has to compare with expected oil and gas price rises.

The average household could expect an 8 per cent increase in energy prices over the next 11 years, said the paper, though this estimate relied on consumers using less energy, said Miliband.

The government expects business to profit from the transition to a low-carbon economy, citing "huge opportunities for UK business to take part in the global £3tn low-carbon market that will employ more than one million people in the UK by 2015."

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

John Vidal is environment editor of The Guardian and a Trustee of Planet 21, publisher of this website.