carbon-transitionAfter twelve years in power the British Labour government yesterday outlined what it has deemed a “low carbon transition plan”.

Coopting language from the growing Transition Town movement is a crafty tactic by the British government that is promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2020 with 80% cut by 2050.

Let’s get the positives out of the way – The announcement is meant to be a belated catch-up by Britain to lead the world in the renewable revolution away from fossil fuels.

To its credit – and we must give credit where its due – The government deserves praise  for taking the lead internationally, especially in the run up to the Copenhagen conference.

The government also sets out how it intends to meet its binding carbon budget across all sectors of the economy – the first country to do so. Each Government Department now has to produce its own detailed plan for carbon reduction. “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.”

So the government promised:

  • Power sector: Reduce emissions by 22% on 2008 levels by 2020 – 40% of electricity from “low-carbon” sources by that date, which includes 30 per cent from renewable, and 10 per cent from nuclear and “clean coal”.
  • Homes: Smart meters fitted to every home. Will become 30 per cent more efficient. Under a pioneering cash-back scheme, people will be paid if they use low-carbon sources to generate heat or electricity.
  • Workplace: An estimated 1.2 jobs will be created in the low-carbon industry, worth an estimated £3 trillion by the middle of the next decade. Some £120m will be invested in offshore wind, with an additional £60m in marine energy.
  • Transport: The plan aims to cut emissions from domestic transport by 14% on 2008 levels, which will be achieved by reducing CO2 emissions in new cars from 130g/km from 2012 to  95g/km by 2020, a 40% reduction from 2007 levels. Introducing financial incentives for hybrid cars

However here comes the bad news: Miliband has outlined what he sees as the “energy trinity” being the solution – renewables, nuclear and clean coal. Two parts of the trinity could be construed as flawed: nuclear comes with inherent safety and proliferation risks, not to mention its elephant in the room that it might not reduce carbon that much anyway.

The government also wants new nuclear plants operational by 2020 – a highly ambitious target that means that the planning and health and safety process will surely be compromised.

CCS remains unproven on a large scale a fact recognised by scientists. Sir David King, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser and is now director of the Smith School for Enterprise and Environment in Oxford argues “The strategy isn’t perfect. I am somewhat sceptical of its ambitions with regard to carbon capture and storage, otherwise known as “clean coal”.

Another significant omission is air travel. The document briefly mentions a target to reduce domestic emissions from air below 2005 levels by 2050, but gives no indication of how or what to do about international air travel.  In that sense, the government’s announcement doesn’t make sense when by 2050 aviation threatens to eat up the UK’s entire carbon budget.

The problem is that the government is trying to have it both ways. It says it is committed to a massive climate transition plan – yet it is refusing to tackle aircraft growth – and even plans to develop a third runway at Heathrow. It seems to me that we are entering an era of Alice in Wanderland politics where the promises might mean radical cuts or they might turn out to be another announcement from Government that quickly turn out to be meaningless.

As an editorial in the Guardian newspaper this morning says: “Everything must change and yet nothing must change”. You cannot have it both ways. Change has to happen and that cannot happen without radical changes to the way we live our lives.

And buried deep in the announcement is the Government’s escape route through emission trading, that might make everything essentially meaningless anyway.

Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement, argues: “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.”