Monday, March 19, 2012

UK Government's green record comes under worst criticism yet

Tory anti-wind power propaganda
With friends like this, do the LibDems need enemies? Tory Aardvark campaign material.

Coalition Government claims to be the “greenest government ever" have been severely tarnished from five directions following developments over the weekend.

According to a YouGov survey, just 2% of the British population believe this claim, which will be further undermined by revelations in the Guardian on Saturday that restrictions on environmental pollution are about to be removed under the Government's “red tape challenge".

Furthermore, last Friday, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey revised the Emissions Performance Standard requirements for a new generation of gas-fired electricity generating plants, which Greenpeace has calculated will lead to Britain missing its climate change targets.

This morning the Prime Minister also signalled his government would support new airport expansion in the South East, and heavily hinted Gatwick would be the focus of these plans.

The coalition agreement explicitly says: “We will refuse permission for additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted.”

But the Prime Minister said this morning: “I'm not blind to the need to increase airport capacity, particularly in the south-east. We are acting now to make the best use of existing capacity...... Gatwick is emerging as a business airport for London, under a new owner competing with Heathrow.”

Finally, the National Audit Office (NAO) has criticised the way in which the competition for the first UK demonstration carbon capture and storage project was run, saying valuable years have been lost in developing this new technology.

Not the greenest Government

On 27 May 2010, Secretaries of State Chris Huhne and Caroline Spelman repeated the new coalition Government’s pledge to be the greenest in UK history and outlined their legislative programme for the first term of government.

Chris Huhne said, "Making this Government the greenest not merely an aspiration; it is essential. The actions of this Government in this Parliament will define our ability to combat climate change in the decades to come.

“We are developing an integrated strategy across the public, private and third sectors, to tackle the loss of biodiversity, address the way that we use resources, adapt to climate change and grow a greener economy that provides the clean, green jobs and industries of the future."

Twenty two months later, where are we?

A YouGov poll, commissioned by Greenpeace, has found that only 2% of voters asked believe that the government is the “greenest government ever", with the majority, 53%, believing that it is “about average".

10% believe it is “greener than most other governments have been", with 9% believing it is “less green" and 7% believing it is the “least green". 18% didn't know.

The votes were split pretty equally by age and gender, but more Tories believe the claim (3%) than Labour (1%) with no LibDems agreeing with the statement.

People were asked whether they thought that current safeguards to protect Britain's wildlife and countryside were too strong, too weak, or about right.

Just 4% thought they were too strong, with 40% thinking they were too weak. 37% thought they were about right and 19% didn't know. Again, age and gender did not have a strong effect on the results, but voting intention did. Nearly half the number of Labour and LibDem voters thought that currently there was too little protection, whereas just 28% of Conservative voters did. 54% of Tories thought they were about right.

Red tape challenge

This being the case, the question of why the Government is slashing environmental protection for the countryside is being asked following revelations in the Guardian over the weekend that the Government will soon announce that 174 environmental regulations are to be relaxed.

These include laws concerning the dumping of asbestos, preventing the spread of invasive species, the protection of wildlife and common lands, curtailing noise nuisance, industrial air pollution and animal traps.

Ministers are expected to claim that the simplification of this legislation will save business £1 billion, yet apparently neither the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, nor any other environment minister attended the ‘Star Chamber’ conducted by Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin who is leading the “red tape challenge".

97% of the many thousands of public responses on the red tape challenge website asked for stronger protection or no change in the rules.

"The brazenness with which the government has sought to undermine the very principles of environmental protection is shocking enough," said Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. "But it's also astonishing that ministers have been so willing to waste taxpayers' money on such an ideologically driven vanity project."

A spokesperson for Defra merely said that “some of the rules we ask businesses to follow are either too complicated, ineffective or just obsolete".

The EU Habitats Directive, which protects rare and threatened wildlife, has been targeted by Osborne and will be "liberalised", according to the document. Other targets include regulations about:
  • persistent organic pollutants
  • cleaning up contaminated land, because this is a “burden for the housing industry"
  • development of common land
  • requirements for local authorities to investigate complaints about noise, dust and smell
  • waste management at construction sites
  • safe disposal of electrical goods and batteries by manufacturers
  • recycling targets for larger UK businesses.
Any environmental damage not paid for by business will have to be borne by the taxpayer.

New gas plants

Thirdly, on Friday Ed Davey announced measures to be included in the forthcoming Electricity Market Reform legislation that he says are intended to provide more certainty to those investing in new gas-powered generation.

He wants to maintain the 450 grams per kilowatt-hour level of emissions from such plants until 2045, so that they do not have to be fitted with emission-reducing technology or made more efficient, and adjust the Capacity Market in such a way that ensures such plants are built.

Greenpeace immediately slammed this as “the Liberal Democrats’ most craven submission yet to George Osborne’s bonfire of environmental protection".

Its senior energy campaigner Joss Garman said, “by stripping away the simple requirement that our power stations need to become more efficient and less polluting, Clegg and Davey are undoing whatever good work their party has done on the environment since entering government".

They have calculated that the effect of this measure "would make it impossible for the UK to meet its long-term carbon emission reduction goals".

The move could even be illegal and subject to challenge in the courts, since to comply with the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change, Greenpeace notes that the level of emissions from these plants would need to fall to 50g per kwh at 2030.

According to DECC’s October 2011 Updated Emissions Projections, an additional 4.9 gigawatts (GW) of new gas-fired electricity generation capacity is projected to come online by 2020, with 4.1GW due by 2016.

However, new consented gas projects already amount to 16.2GW, and National Grid and New Power data shows that all of these projects could be online before 2020.

Garman called this "a major change of course from the one followed by Chris Huhne," and said it was “just about the worst thing Ed Davey could have done in his first weeks in office.”

Ed Davey said: “This is all part of our commitment to transforming the market, providing long-term certainty to investors, increased competition, and the best deal possible for consumers.”

Carbon capture and storage

Finally, the National Audit Office has issued an investigation into the competition launched in 2007 by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform designed to stimulate innovation in carbon capture and storage and put the UK at the forefront of global attempts to develop this novel technology.

It was cancelled four years later by the Department of Energy and Climate Change on the grounds of protecting value for money and because the project could not be funded within the £1 billion budget agreed at the 2010 Spending Review.

The report concludes that it was launched with “insufficient planning and recognition of the commercial risks".

However, it does say that some good came of it: the results of engineering and design studies completed by bidders, upon which the Government spent £40 million (63 per cent of the £64 million it spent in total on the competition), may help to reduce the costs of future carbon capture and storage projects.

But during the competition, "DECC's decisions to continue were not informed by detailed consideration of the probability of reaching acceptable contract terms and the time lost should the competition not succeed.

"When a capital budget was decided in October 2010, there was no agreement on government funding for operational costs," it observes.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: "Taking calculated risks is perfectly acceptable if those risks are managed effectively; but in this case DECC, and its predecessor, took too long to get to grips with the significant technical, commercial and regulatory risks involved.

"Four years down the road, commercial scale carbon capture and storage technology has still to be developed.

"The Department must learn the lessons of the failure of this project if further time is not to be lost, and value for money achieved on future projects."

Carbon capture and storage is a three-part process that involves capturing the carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels, transporting it to a storage site, and permanently storing it under pressure, usually underground.

The individual elements of the technology exist but have yet to be linked and operated together at a commercial scale power station.

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