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UK commits to halving emissions in fourth 'carbon budget'

By Martin Leggett - 17 May 2011 18:41:0 GMT
UK commits to halving emissions in fourth 'carbon budget'

The UK became the first government worldwide to commit itself to a legally-binding emissions target, as it announced plans to cut by 50% its greenhouse gas emissions, by 2027. The plan was laid out by the coalition government's energy secretary, Chris Huhne, to the UK's Members of Parliament (MPs). The target will form the foundation of the country's fourth 'carbon budget'.

Although the cuts were broadly in line with the recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) - published last December - the Treasury and business department still won important concessions. Those left question marks over how far the UK's carbon emissions will really be cut in the decades to come.

The announcement came at the culmination of a weeks-long tussle between Chris Huhne, on the one hand, and Vince Cable (the business secretary) and George Osbourne (the Chancellor) on the other. The latter pair saw the CCC's recommendation - of slashing emissions in half, compared to those of 1990 - as being a drag on the UK's energy intensive industry. The headline cute was only agreed, with prime minister David Cameron's seal of approval, when two important caveats were added to the plan.

First, rather than rely wholly on cutting emissions from the UK's own energy use and industrial activity, the budget allows for the 50% target to be partly reached by using emissions trading. That goes against the CCC's advice - leading to Caroline Lucas, the UK's first Green party MP to say that ''allowing the use of trading mechanisms such as offsetting essentially means outsourcing our emission reduction responsibilities to other countries - thereby weakening the drive to achieve more green technologies and industries, with all the jobs those can bring, here in the UK.''

And secondly, there is an opt-out clause. Because the Treasury and business departments were worried about the implication for the UK's competitiveness, they successfully made the plan conditional on the rest of Europe following the UK's lead. If, in 2014, the EU hasn't also signed up to a 30% reduction, - an intermediate target that the UK has for 2020 - then the 2027 emissions target can be dumped. That has lead to environmental groups worrying about the casting of a shadow of uncertainty, which could affect investment in the UK's green sector.

Overall, the plan is seen by most as a good start, with Greenpeace describing it as a ''rare victory for the green growth agenda.'' And the CCC welcomed it too. The committee's chief executive, David Kennedy, said that this carbon budget would ''ensure that we make the right investment choices, maximizing long-term growth and reducing our reliance on imported fossil fuels.''

But with Chris Huhne stressing that there would be no extra up-front costs to consumers this parliament, there remains a concern that politicians are merely punting the need for action out of sight - and failing to grasp the nettle here and now.