Government officials have secretly briefed ministers that Britain has no hope of getting remotely near the new European Union renewable energy target that Tony Blair signed up to in the spring – and have suggested that they find ways of wriggling out of it.
In contrast to the government’s claims to be leading the world on climate change, officials within the former Department of Trade and Industry have admitted that under current policies Britain would miss the EU’s 2020 target of 20% energy from renewables by a long way. And their suggestion that “statistical interpretations of the target” be used rather than new ways to reach it has infuriated environmentalists.
An internal briefing paper for ministers, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, reveals that officials at the department, now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, think the best the UK could hope for is 9% of energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro by 2020.
It says the UK “has achieved little so far on renewables” and that getting to 9%, from the current level of about 2%, would be “challenging”. The paper was produced in the early summer, around the time the government published its energy white paper.
Under current policies renewables would account for only 5% of Britain’s energy mix by 2020, the document says. The EU average is 7%; Germany is at 13%. It acknowledges that Germany, unlike Britain, has built a “strong and growing renewables industry”.
EU leaders agreed the 20% target for the bloc in spring. The European Commission is working out how to reach this .
DBERR officials fear that Britain may end up being told to get to 16%, which it describes as “very challenging”. The paper suggests a number of ways ministers could wriggle out of specific commitments. It also suggests ministers lobby certain EU commissioners and countries such as France, Germany, Poland and Italy to agree to a more flexible interpretation of the target, by including nuclear power, for example, or investment in solar farms in Africa.
Officials ask ministers to examine “what options there are for statistical interpretations of the target that would make it easier to achieve”.
They suggest the target lacks credibility because it is so ambitious, while acknowledging that the Germans will be difficult to persuade because the Chancellor Angela Merkel is the champion of the 20% target and wants to commit Germany to 27%.
“These flexible options are ones that may be difficult to negotiate with some member states such as Germany, who we expect to resist approaches that may be seen to water down the renewables target,” the briefing says.
Environmentalists were shocked. “This briefing reads like a ‘wriggle and squirm’ paper,” said Andrew Simms, director of the New Economics Foundation. “It combines almost comic desperation from civil servants suddenly realising that they actually have to do something to promote renewable energy, with a breathtaking cynicism as they explore every conceivable get-out clause to escape the UK’s international commitments.”
A spokesman for DBERR said he would not comment on leaked documents, but added: “This government is committed to renewables and reducing emissions in line with EU targets.”
The Conservative’s shadow secretary of state, Alan Duncan, said: “This is a staggering revelation and shows the government has known all along it won’t meet its targets but has deliberately avoided admitting it. They have been living a lie.”
The Lib Dem environment spokesman, Chris Huhne, agreed: “This news confirms that the government has said yes to an EU target of 20% of renewable energy without any visible means of achieving it. If the government’s policy is now to have any credibility and not be seen as a cynical attempt to woo green opinion, ministers must stop fudging and start acting.”
The paper reveals an aversion to renewables on the basis of perceived cost, arguing that they are a more expensive way of reducing carbon emissions than the European Emissions Trading Scheme. It estimates that getting to 9% by 2020 could cost the economy £4bn a year.
Environmentalists reject the idea that renewables are too expensive. Even £4bn a year is only about one third of the 1% of gross domestic product rich countries were recommended to spend a year combating climate change.
The paper also reveals that carbon capture and underground storage of CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power stations is projected to make little contribution before 2020. “This is betrayal of the highest order,” said Rajiv Bhatia, head of renewable energy distributor Alternergy.
Jeremy Leggett, of solar energy company Solarcentury, said: “It would not surprise me if this delay in renewables deployment was the tactical objective all along for some senior officials in DTI. Serving on the government’s Renewables Advisory Board from 2003 to 2006, I witnessed what cynics could easily have mistaken for a deliberate campaign of delay, obfuscation, and the parking, if not torpedoing, of good ideas coming from industry members of the board.”
By Ashley Seager and Mark Milner
13 August 2007
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