Fears that the UK's fight against climate change will be lost in the confusion of the Liberal-Conservative coalition were underlined yesterday when divisions between the two parties were exposed over nuclear power, renewable energy, airport expansion and offshore oil drilling.
It emerged that the new Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne – one of the most senior Lib Dems in the Cabinet – is to cede responsibility for civil nuclear energy policy to his Tory deputy, Charles Hendry, who will steer any legislation through Parliament. Mr Huhne is opposed to nuclear power on public spending grounds.
While the Lib Dems and Tories have agreed that there will be no state funding for a new generation of nuclear power stations, the industry's powerful lobby said it expected there would be no "slowing down" in the nuclear programme under Mr Hendry. The Lib Dems agreed to abstain on any Commons votes on nuclear power – meaning any legislation is likely to be passed.
Experts have expressed fears that although there would be no public funding for new power stations, there is a risk of state subsidy "by stealth" to achieve the 2017 target by which the private sector and civil servants want the stations to be operational. Hamish Lal, a partner specialising in nuclear contracts at lawyers Jones Day, said: "There was a concern in the industry that having a Liberal Democrat energy minister whose party is openly opposed to new nuclear would mean that the process was not driven sufficiently hard to meet the 2017 target. With Charles Hendry involved in the process I would not now expect any slowing down in the nuclear programme."
On his second day as Prime Minister, David Cameron pledged to make the coalition the "greenest government ever" and announced that all ministerial departments must cut their carbon emissions by 10 per cent.
Yet an investigation by The Independent on Sunday has found that, despite his commitment to "vote blue, go green", there are disparities between the two governing parties across all aspects of the environment.
Environmentalists expressed concern that the coalition agreement published last week, while committing the Government to a range of green measures, fails to set targets explicitly for reducing carbon emissions.
The Lib Dem manifesto promised to cut UK emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, while the Tories are committed to a 34 per cent reduction.
The coalition agreement backs "measures to encourage marine energy" – which is the Tories' preferred choice. The Lib Dems want a nuclear-free renewable "energy mix" including 15,000 new wind turbines, yet the Tories are not enthusiastic about wind power and leading Conservatives have opposed wind farms near their constituencies. Instead, Mr Cameron wants the market to decide the best form of low-carbon technology.
On transport, the Lib Dems are opposed to all airport expansion and want funding to be diverted from roads to rail. Yet last week new Transport Secretary Philip Hammond alarmed environmentalists when he declared: "We will end the war on the motorist."
While both parties are, unlike Labour, opposed to a third runway at Heathrow, the Tories have left the door open to a new airport in the South-east.
The Government's plans for offshore oil drilling are perhaps the most worrying for the green movement. A Conservative energy policy paper published quietly in March revealed controversial proposals to "hunt" out dwindling oil reserves in the North Sea and off the Shetland Isles.
The Tories committed to renew and extend exploration and exploitation of offshore oil reserves in the document "Rebuilding Security: Conservative Energy Policy for an Uncertain World". The report included a declaration that they want to open up all waters around the British coastline to potential oil drilling. Environmentalists warned the move could result in deaths and injuries to endangered whales and dolphins in British waters.
Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth's executive director, said: "We welcome Mr Cameron's pledge that the new Government will be the greenest ever. We urgently need to build a new low carbon economy out of the rubble of the old. But the starting point must be a more ambitious target for tackling climate change. The coalition Government must agree to cut UK emissions by at least 42 per cent by 2020. This is the minimum that scientific experts say is needed for this country to play its fair part in preventing dangerous climate change."
Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the Green Party, said: "It's one step forward, two steps back. For instance, it's good that they've signed up to the 10:10 agreement, to cut CO2 emissions by 10 per cent in the coming year, but they need to commit to year-on-year cuts if they're to meet the targets demanded by science."
Mr Huhne yesterday reiterated his opposition to nuclear power. He told The Times: "This is an island surrounded by sea; we can use offshore tidal power, wind power, and we are sitting on enormous stocks of coal. We ought to be able to put together a policy that is non-carbon and independent from foreign sources."