Tories' dash for gas risks climate target

Go green, vote blue, said David Cameron, but even his environment adviser thinks difficult decisions are being put off

A A A

An over-reliance on gas-fired power stations risks making it impossible for Britain to meet targets on cutting carbon emissions, the new head of the independent climate change watchdog has warned.

The intervention by Lord Deben, who as John Gummer was a secretary of state for the environment in the Major government in the 1990s, comes as the coalition's green credentials are again thrown into doubt by claims that climate sceptics were promoted in the reshuffle and steps towards major expansion in airport capacity are being taken.

Lord Deben, chosen by David Cameron to head the independent Committee on Climate Change, told The Independent on Sunday that politicians risk delaying difficult decisions over the environment and that a reliance on gas in the short term will mean gas-fired powered stations approved over the next few years will dictate future policy.

"It would be perfectly possible to miss the [carbon emissions] target if we make the wrong decision about the precise amount on which we depend on gas," he said.

The coalition has faced accusations of a "dash for gas" since announcing in March new rules that would block any more coal-fired power stations, but allow gas power until 2045. Some senior Tories, including George Osborne, have been reluctant to sign up to restrictions on gas, believing a breakthrough in carbon capture and storage could be imminent, while shale gas supplies could cause prices to fall. The Climate Change Act commits Britain to reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050.

Lord Deben, who is due to have his appointment as chairman of the climate change watchdog confirmed within weeks, said: "There is a problem with it, which is that you cannot say 'It will be alright for a bit'. The real difficulty is you end up with a whole infrastructure that you use for gas, and then infrastructure drives policy.

"If you're not careful, what happens is each generation of politicians pushes the difficult decisions back. So you suddenly find yourself in 2035 with 15 years to go [until the 2050 target] and you have not done the hard things. By 2035 even the least willing to understand [climate change] will see what is happening … but it will be too late to do it in an orderly, cost-effective way."

Some senior Tories believe a breakthrough in shale gas – released by blasting water and chemicals at pressure into rock in a process known as "fracking" – could create a major new energy supply and bring down costs. However, in May, this newspaper revealed companies, including Shell, Centrica and Schlumberger, had warned Mr Cameron at a Downing Street summit that Britain's shale gas reserves were "not a game-changing amount". Last week, Mr Osborne announced a new £160m tax break for older oil and gas fields in the North Sea.

Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy, insisted there was a place for gas, but it would be balanced with renewables. He said: "A fifth of our power stations are closing over the next decade, and we need to build a diverse mix of all the technologies to keep the lights on and emissions down. Our gas strategy is about ensuring sufficient investment comes forward, while also living within our legally binding carbon budgets."

Last week's government reshuffle has also reopened doubts about the Conservatives' commitment to the green agenda: Owen Paterson, the new Environment Secretary, has been described as a climate sceptic and a supporter of shale gas. A fresh move to loosen planning restrictions and a review of airport capacity which could pave the way for a third runway at Heathrow have also dismayed environmentalists.

Joss Garman, senior campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "Last week's reshuffle looks like a headlong rush towards the sort of toxic, nasty party politics that David Cameron said was history when he told voters to go green, vote blue. With the Chancellor pursuing a new dash for gas burning, roads and runways, and a new Environment Secretary who refuses to deny reports that he won't accept the science of climate change, it's more important than ever that Nick Clegg stands up for the millions of people who want to protect our environment."

An ally of Mr Paterson insisted he was not a climate denier, but he wants more evidence. The friend added: "He has not bought into the deification of man-made global warming. He is a sceptic." In 2007, Mr Paterson described wind farms as ridiculous, claiming they "demand vast amounts of public subsidy and do not work".

While responsibility for tackling global warming lies with Mr Davey, a Liberal Democrat, there are growing tensions in the coalition about environmental policy. "Owen Paterson is just so far away from our politics," said a senior Lib Dem. "There is going to be a battle over green policy which is going to last for the rest of this Government."

Another major battle looms on the Government's aviation policy. Last week, Mr Cameron appointed Howard Davies to lead an independent commission into increasing airport capacity, after shifting Justine Greening, who opposes a third runway at Heathrow, from Transport to International Development. However, Mr Davies was once a special adviser to former chancellor Nigel Lawson, one of the most outspoken climate sceptics in Britain.

Emissions targets allow for an increase from aviation, but Lord Deben warned that those arguing for a major expansion in aviation to boost the economy, and a subsequent further rise in emissions, ignore the targets which mean that "if you move the amount of emissions that you accord to aviation up, you have to reduce emissions that other parts of industry can give out".

While still an MP, he described Heathrow expansion as "utterly unnecessary and unacceptable". Now he says only: "I have my views and those are in the record."

Reshuffle

The appointment of climate sceptic Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary dismayed green groups, even though climate change policy lies elsewhere in Energy. And green Tory modernisers, including Greg Clark, Nick Boles and Dan Poulter, were promoted. Even so, the Lib Dems warn of a green battle until 2015

Aviation

The biggest chink in the government's green armour. Any expansion in airport capacity will be opposed by environmentalists. David Cameron promised "No ifs, no buts, no third runway" at Heathrow. Now a U-turn is taxiing into view, that would bury the slogan "Vote blue, go green".

Renewables

Despite high-profile cock-ups (cutting subsidies for solar panels) and controversies (Tory MPs demanding an end to onshore wind farms), the coalition's record on renewables is surprisingly good. In the first three months of this year, they accounted for 11 per cent of the UK's electricity, up from 7.7 per cent in 2011.

Oil and gas

In March, George Osborne announced a £3bn tax break for oil firms to drill new wells off the north of Scotland. Last week, he revealed a £160m tax break for older oil and gas fields. The Chancellor has fought for gas to play a larger part in the energy mix as "the largest single source of our electricity in the coming years".

Planning

In the desperate hunt for economic growth, planning rules are to be relaxed. Councils will be told they can tinker with green belt rules, while homeowners will be able to build larger extensions without permission. The Royal Horticultural Society warns of a greater flooding risk.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own