A Government still addicted to petrol

"All targets and no trousers" seemed to be the gist of the reaction from environmentalists to last week's Budget. Greens welcomed the introduction of new, legally binding, carbon-reduction goals but attacked the lack of a clear road map showing how they could be achieved.

Some applauded policies such as the extra subsidy for offshore wind and investment in building efficiency, but attacked overall funding of £1.4bn as miserly in comparison to the enormity of the climate crisis and recent financial bailouts.

But for those who are more worried about oil depletion, the Budget was utterly hollow. The car scrappage scheme came without efficiency conditions attached, the return to inflation-plus fuel duty increases was welcome but timid compared to the escalator that was killed off by the petrol protests of 2000, and tax breaks for North Sea operators will do little to stem the decline in output. Production has halved since its peak in 1999, and is now dropping at 7 per cent a year, dragging Britain ever deeper into import dependency.

Still less will the Budget improve the global oil outlook. The International Energy Agency forecasts a "supply crunch" early in the next decade, Shell predicts a production plateau from 2015, and the head of the Libyan National Oil Company sees peak oil looming.

In contrast, the big energy announcement of the week looked far bolder. The Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband, said new coal-fired power stations would only be approved if they included a demonstration plant for carbon capture and storage (CCS) from day one, and a commitment by the energy company to retrofit the entire power station once the Environment Agency judged CCS to be technically and commercially proven. This came beside plans to fund four of the new pilot plants through a 2 per cent levy on customers' bills.

The move was welcomed by environmental groups and is an advance on the Government's previous dither in this area. But it is also a spectacular gamble and has three obvious risks.

One, pilot plants will capture only a quarter of new power station emissions .

Two, the technology may not be viable, at least not in time, posing a dilemma in the mid-2020s: whether to close the power stations or sacrifice the climate.

Three, coal may be less abundant than the Government assumes. In 2000, the global coal supply was expected to last 277 years, but by 2006 that had plunged to 140 years as consumption rose and estimates of reserves were revised downwards. One forecasting group predicts peak coal as early as 2025, Mr Miliband's deadline for retrofitting CCS.

The Government seems too timid to confront peak oil publicly, but reckless enough to gamble on potentially unabated coal emissions and the coal supply.

Why not bet on true sustainability: get serious about energy efficiency, renewables, electrification of transport and a European supergrid, and commit the sort of money they have recently been throwing at the banking industry? The stakes are even higher.

The writer is author of The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum man

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