Tories ignore tough climate change recommendations in 2050 net zero plan, but promise nuclear fusion instead

Conference package attacked for failing challenge of climate emergency – while wasting money on ‘pipe dream’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 28 September 2019 07:15 BST
The package includes investment for electric cars - but ducks tough measures
The package includes investment for electric cars - but ducks tough measures (Reuters)

New Conservative plans for achieving their net-zero pledge to end carbon emissions by 2050 – including a nuclear fusion plant – have been criticised for lacking urgency and practical solutions.

Green groups hit out after the Tories kicked off their annual conference with the first, long-awaited policy changes to help hit the legal commitment to end UK contributions to global warming.

Measures to boost the uptake of electric cars, to plant one million more trees and to improve home energy efficiency are described as “another step on the road to the 2050 net zero target”.

Most eye-catching is a promise of a plant to deliver zero-carbon energy from nuclear fusion by 2040 – even though most experts believe achieving the dream is still 30 years away.

But there is no mention of hugely controversial recommendations from the government’s own advisers to achieve net zero, such as an earlier ban on petrol and diesel cars, an end to gas boilers, huge investment in green energy, or sharp curbs to meat-eating.

Both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth attacked the package as falling far short of the climate emergency challenge, while wasting money on the “pipe dream” of nuclear fusion.

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, warned: “The climate emergency demands much more urgency, investment and stronger delivery mechanisms.

“The government must start investing immediately an additional £25bn a year to insulate our buildings, electrify our transport systems, protect and restore our forests and oceans, and support workers and communities to transition to cleaner jobs.”

And Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth chief executive, said: “Why throw money away on tech-fix pipe dreams, at precisely the moment that onshore and offshore wind and solar are delivering better returns than ever before?

“If the government is serious about slashing climate pollution it needs to stop fracking, stop filling the skies with more planes and stop funding oil and gas projects abroad, and instead invest in public transport and renewable energy.”

The Conservative package, unveiled ahead of the start of the conference in Manchester on Sunday, promises:

* Up to £1bn of investment in the automotive industry for the research and development of electric vehicles.

* A new “future homes standard”, requiring all new homes to use solar panels, waste water heat recovery systems or low carbon heat to cut carbon emissions by 78 per cent, from 2025.

* Three new forests in Northumberland, with the planting of up to one million new trees by 2024, with “a mix of tree species” instead of “a reliance on conifers”, as under other governments.

* More “pocket parks” – small pieces of undeveloped, or derelict, land transformed into green spaces – after 150 were announced in March.

* A pledge of £200m initial funding to design and build a commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040, delivering “clean, safe and inexhaustible power”.

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Although supporters of nuclear fusion hail a zero-carbon, combustion-free source of energy, the technology has been hit by repeated delays and disappointments.

The concept aims to squeeze together hydrogen atoms to make helium, creating vast amounts of energy, but it works only at extreme temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius.

Because that is far too hot for any solid material to withstand, scientists must use powerful magnetic fields to stop the hot plasma produced coming into contact with the surrounding chamber.

Greenpeace also argued that, while planting one million trees by 2024 “would definitely be progress”, 700 million were needed by 2030.

Nevertheless, Andrea Leadsom, the business secretary, claimed the measures showed that “addressing climate change is a top priority for the Conservative Party”.

“Today’s announcements will not only help us reach our net zero 2050 target, but will benefit communities and households – and improve wildlife and wellbeing – while doing so,” she said.

“The Conservatives are doing this properly: creating hundreds of thousands of low carbon jobs and growing our economy while successfully reducing emissions.”

When she passed the 2050 legal target, as she left office, Theresa May was accused of hunting for a “legacy” while failing to bind her successor to detailed action to help curb runaway climate change.

It is described as “net zero” because air travel and farming are viewed as unavoidable by 2050, but carbon from those activities would be taken out of the air and offset with trees or by burying carbon dioxide.

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