Analysis: At last, the Government fulfils green promises with policy shift on energy

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Britain took a significant step towards meeting the challenge of global warming yesterday by officially adopting a green energy policy for the first time.

Britain took a significant step towards meeting the challenge of global warming yesterday by officially adopting a green energy policy for the first time.

In the long-awaited Energy White Paper, the Government signalled a radical shift in approach by making the principal priority of energy policy not security of supply or social justice, as in the past, but protection of the environment.

In future, the overriding objective in running the energy sector will be to produce a "low-carbon economy" and to work towards a massive 60 per cent cut in emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, during the next 50 years. The 60 per cent cut was recommended by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution three years ago as the minimum necessary to stabilise climate change and yesterday marked its official incorporation into policy.

The Government hopes to achieve it by boosting energy efficiency across all sectors of society, and by giving a substantial new impetus to renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and wave power. It will also push new "clean fuel" technologies for transport, and bring in a new carbon trading scheme from 2005 that will make carbon dioxide emissions subject to permits, which it is hoped will drive CO 2 use firmly down

The option of giving a fresh boost to nuclear power, which is carbon-free and has been tempting to some ministers, has not been taken up. While not entirely ruled out, the idea of building new nuclear power stations has been put firmly on hold. Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary who launched the White Paper, said she believed the 60 per cent CO 2 reduction could be achieved without recourse to nuclear.

Yesterday, there were criticisms of the detail in the White Paper, with green groups and parts of the renewable energy industry saying some targets were not ambitious enough or others were missing entirely – for example, there were no measures announced to curb the runaway growth in CO 2 emissions from road traffic or from aviation,

But even environmentalists conceded the historic nature of the shift in policy emphasis. "Britain's got a green energy policy at last," said Roger Higman, energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

The White Paper sets out four goals: to work towards cutting emissions of carbon dioxide by 60 per cent by 2050; to main the reliability of energy supplies; to promote competitive energy markets in the UK and beyond; and to ensure that every home is adequately and affordably heated.

The first, ministers accept, is the most important and presents the greatest challenge. "Climate change is a clear and present danger," Mrs Hewitt said. "Without urgent action to reduce carbon emissions the Earth's temperature is currently set to rise faster than at any time in the past 10,000 years. But we know this cannot be achieved without a fundamental review of the way we produce and consume energy."

Critics of yesterday's announcements contended they did not go far enough, with hostile comment particularly focused on the future share of renewables in the electricity mix.

Green campaigners had hoped the Government would firmly commit to doubling the share of electricity produced from renewables to 20 per cent by 2020, from the present target of 10 per cent by 2010. But, instead of producing a commitment, the White Paper offers, in a classic piece of Whitehallese, merely an "ambition" to do so, at the insistence, it is thought, of the Treasury.

Other measures promised include £60m of new money for renewables projects, bringing spending up to £348m in total over four years, and reforming planning rules "to unblock hurdles to renewable energy". Opponents of big wind farms in hilly countryside may see this as a sinister threat.

Measures to boost energy efficiency will include speeding changes to the building regulations and setting tougher standards for new and refurbished homes, and for electrical products. There will be a new Energy Research Centre to help develop the latest energy technologies, and more help to develop the hydrogen fuel cell and clean coal burning.

Stephen Tindale, director of Greenpeace UK, said: "Greenpeace welcomes the fact that, despite strong pro-nuclear voices in the Cabinet, this White Paper clearly concludes that the nuclear industry is the energy of the past. The Government's commitment to a 60 per cent carbon cut by 2050 and the unveiling of a strategy to achieve that is very good news."

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