The Government is to set five-yearly targets for reducing Britain's carbon dioxide emissions in an attempt to head off the mounting pressure for a law to enforce year-on-year cuts.
Under a climate change Bill announced in the Queen's Speech today, ministers will promise to monitor annually progress towards the five-year milestones, in order to deliver a 60 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2050.
But the Government is under intense pressure to go further and it faces the embarrassing prospect that its Bill could be beefed up during its passage through Parliament. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will hold talks aimed at strengthening the measure in the House of Lords, where they can defeat Labour by joining forces.
If peers vote for annual cuts, Labour MPs who back the idea would then be more likely to rebel when the amended Bill returned to the Commons. A total of 412 MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for a 3 per cent cut in emissions each year, the highest number to sign such a petition in the last parliamentary session. The backers include 202 Labour MPs.
Ministers are resisting annual reductions, arguing that it is more realistic to deliver cuts over a longer period. But they will promise that an independent carbon committee to be set up under the Bill will review progress each year. Although the Bill will be trumpeted by Downing Street today, it will not be published until next month at the earliest and could be delayed until early next year as the Cabinet is in dispute over how tough it should be.
David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, wants to extend the carbon trading scheme to include more businesses such as hotels and supermarkets. But Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is resisting the idea.
The Tories have stolen a march on Labour by publishing their own draft Bill, which calls for year-on-year cuts. They said Labour's record illustrated the need for annual reductions, claiming it had dropped a commitment to reduce emissions by 20 per cent by 2010, and that emissions had risen since 1997.
Under the Tory plan, a carbon commission would not only monitor progress but would set and enforce targets, taking the politics out of climate change in the way that interest rate decisions were handed to the Bank of England in 1997. The Tories said they did not expect the Government to meet the targets precisely each year but proposed rolling targets which could be revised depending on progress and outside economic factors.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, said: "Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing us today, and we can only tackle it if we realise that we all have a responsibility to act - individuals, businesses and government. The Government must deliver a proper climate change Bill in the Queen's speech - not a watered-down version."
Chris Huhne, environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: " The climate change Bill has to have teeth and bite. There must be annual targets that allow the Government's progress on climate change to be assessed. It is not rocket science to allow both for the economic cycle and for the weather - economic forecasters do this all the time. Failing to set annual targets is not because they are difficult, but because ministers do not want to be held accountable by Parliament."
Ministers accused their critics of "political point scoring", but they played down the differences with other parties, insisting that five-yearly targets backed up by annual monitoring would have much the same impact as year-on-year targets.
A survey of 318 MPs by the Rough Guide series for a book on climate change suggests that the Liberal Democrats and Tories have better green credentials than Labour.
Although many MPs from the three main parties identified climate change as one of their most important concerns, the response rate of opposition MPs to the survey was much higher than Labour's. Fifty-seven Liberal Democrats replied, with six refusing. Some 115 Tories responded, reflecting Mr Cameron's decision to put the environment at the top of the party's agenda, while 81 did not. Some 141 Labour MPs replied, but 214 did not, including Mr Brown.
Tony Juniper, the director of Friends of the Earth, said: "There is now overwhelming cross-party support for new legislation to cut UK carbon dioxide emissions by at least 3 per cent every year. We hope that ministers will seize the opportunity presented by this political consensus and make the UK a world leader in developing a low carbon economy."
The group added: "While there may be some years when cuts are larger, and others when cuts are smaller, it is essential that the Bill is clear what the cuts should be each year, to make it easy to assess future government performance.
"Such targets will also prevent a future government deciding not to bother cutting emissions in the hope that a future government will act instead."Reuse content