The government today admitted that meeting the new European Union renewable energy target will prove a “major challenge” following a leaked report obtained by the Guardian that reveals officials have briefed ministers that it was an impossibility.
The briefing paper by officials at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform warned that the UK “has achieved little so far on renewables” and was set to fall far short of the EU target of generating 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, however, said today that the government was on course to meet its own target of generating 15% of Britain’s electricity from renewable sources by 2015.
But he acknowledged the EU target – which covers total energy production including heat and transport – was more demanding, as he declined to be drawn on whether the 20% target could be met on time.
“We are moving steadily year after year in the right direction,” Mr Wicks told BBC Radio 4’s the World at One. “We are ambitious about renewables and I am absolutely determined that we move forward on renewables.
I am confident that we will play our role in the European Union hitting that very, very demanding target. We are committed on climate change, we are committed on renewables.”
According to the DBERR document, the best Britain can hope for is to raise the level of renewable energy generation from 5% at present to around 9% by the end of the target period. It suggested ministers should consider “what options there are for statistical interpretations of the target that would make it easier to achieve”.
Ministers will face further questions over their environmental credentials when MPs return to Westminster in the autumn, with the chairman of the environmental audit select committee suggesting today that it would investigate the government’s record on renewables as part of a wider inquiry into biofuels.
Tim Yeo, Conservative MP for Suffolk South, told Guardian Unlimited: “The very strong impression is that we are not making enough progress [on renewable energy]. If the concerns are growing we may want to look more widely into this before very long.”
Tony Blair signed up to the tough EU target alongside other European leaders shortly before standing down as prime minister. Downing Street today said it was now up to the European commission to come up with ideas to deliver the “ambitious” new target.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: “It is no secret that these are ambitious targets and it will be a major challenge to meet them, not just for the UK but for all EU states. It is now for the commission to propose how the EU-wide targets should be met.”
The Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, Chris Huhne, said it was clear ministers were trying to “wriggle out” of their commitments on renewables.
“If government efforts are now to be taken seriously, and not just seen as green window-dressing, ministers must now come forward with an action plan to boost renewables,” he said. Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth said the leaked document showed officials were actively trying to weaken the government’s commitment to renewables.
“What this document clearly shows is that civil servants are working away to try to undermine that target,” he told The World at One.
“What they are trying to do is weaken it far as possible. It does give a very interesting insight to the way government operates when it comes to reacting to ambitions agreed to at an EU level by heads of state.”
Jeremy Leggett, a former member of the gGovernment’s renewables advisory board who now runs a solar energy company, said senior officials in Whitehall did not believe renewables could “cut the mustard” as a major energy source.
The DBERR pointed to a pledge in the recent energy white paper to increase renewable electricity threefold to 15% by 2015 as proof of the government’s commitment to renewables.
Meanwhile, the communities secretary, Hazel Blears, today signalled plans to remove some of the red tape hampering green technologies.
The minister has asked Entec – a leading environmental and planning consultancy – to draw up new rules which allow small-scale low carbon technology such as wind turbines and solar panels to be set up without costly planning applications.
By Hélène Mulholland and agencies
13 August 2007
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