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U.K. government battered by criticism over climate change actions, divided over future policy

LONDON -- The United Kingdom's coalition government declared its aim to be the greenest government ever when it came to power a year ago. It is either failing dismally, must do more, must do less or must change direction or emphasis, according to a barrage of reports that have suddenly dropped on the doorstep of No. 10 Downing St.

To make matters worse, the reports from think tanks, environmentalists, industry and the government's own advisers have all arrived as the coalition itself is facing its most testing time after the junior party, the Liberal Democrats, was rocked by two major electoral reverses -- in local elections and on voting reform. Meanwhile, leaks indicate the party is riven by dissent at the top level over climate change policies.

The electoral reverses have triggered a period of soul-searching in the party -- many members of which are deeply wary of their new bedfellows. The leaks reveal that Liberal Democrat Business Minister Vince Cable is lobbying strongly against proposed bigger carbon emission cuts, while his party colleague Energy and Climate Change Minister Chis Huhne is equally adamantly in favor.

Leading the tempest of criticism, a report for Friends of the Earth by Jonathan Porritt, former head of the Sustainable Development Commission, says the coalition has failed to deliver on three-quarters of its key environmental pledges. Porritt, whose commission was axed this year in the first wave of government budget cuts, accuses the Liberal Democrats of timidity in the face of their Conservative partners.

"The Prime Minister's own credibility is at stake here -- as is that of the Liberal Democrats who have clearly failed to use their influence inside the coalition to ensure a better performance on the environment and sustainable development," said Porritt.

"David Cameron could be building a prosperous, low-carbon economy out of the rubble of the old, creating new jobs and industries for recession-hit Britain -- but green development is continually being sacrificed in favour of growth at any cost," added Porritt.

Porritt's analysis also reveals a clear rift between the Conservative-run Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change on how fast to cut the country's rising carbon emissions on the way to the legally binding 2050 target of at least 80 percent below 1990 levels.

Missing CO2 reduction benchmarks

On Tuesday, the Cambridge Econometrics think tank added its voice to the clamor with a report saying the government was set to narrowly miss the first two carbon budgets -- 2008-2012 and 2013-2017 -- set by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a body set up by the country's landmark 2008 Climate Change Act. It would miss the third from 2018 to 2022 by a wider margin unless it took firm steps.

The carbon budgets are interim targets on the way to the 2050 80 percent goal and performance benchmarks. Cambridge Econometrics said it expected the country's carbon emissions to decline by just three-quarters of a percentage point a year from 2015 to 2020, a rate of decline that would accelerate slightly to 1 percent a year from 2020 to 2025.

The United Kingdom is by no means alone in seeing the horizon on its climate change proposals rapidly receding. France has been told it will miss its 2020 renewable energy target -- which it set at 23 percent, above the European Union's 20 percent -- unless it takes tougher action, and Germany is in the throes of a politically divisive debate pitting old nuclear against more renewables or new gas following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis in Japan.

Meanwhile, a report by think tank Policy Exchange accuses the ruling coalition of doing too much on climate. It advised the government to backpedal as fast as possible and attempt to renegotiate its E.U. commitment to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 -- which translates into some 35 percent of its electricity. Last year, the country got about 7 percent of its electricity from renewables.

"The E.U. 2020 renewable energy target is hugely and unnecessarily expensive," said Simon Moore, author of the think tank's report, "2020 Hindsight." "The target diverts current and future resources away from measures that could save the same amount of carbon at lower cost, such as energy efficiency, nuclear and carbon capture and storage. ... The U.K.'s commitment to meeting the E.U.'s renewable energy target is actually damaging the goal of global carbon reduction," Moore added.

The report's conclusions were broadly in line with those of the industry lobby group CBI -- formerly the Confederation of British Industry -- which last month warned the government that pressing ahead with its current climate policies would simply force heavy industry to take refuge in countries with more lax rules.

Critics want more nuclear power, less offshore wind

This week, the Committee on Climate Change also joined this chorus, saying new nuclear power was likely to be the most cost-effective form of low-carbon power generation in the 2020s, while the government's aim to get some 28 gigawatts of electricity capacity from offshore wind by 2020 should be scaled back until the costs of this technology have dropped.

But rather than trying to renegotiate its E.U. targets, the government should simply refocus its efforts, the CCC report says, noting that by 2030, the country could have an electricity mix with 40 percent from renewables, 40 percent from nuclear, 15 percent from carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the remainder from unabated gas power generation.

"Our analysis shows that renewable energy technologies are very promising, and have an important role to play in helping meet the UK's carbon budgets and 2050 target, alongside other low carbon technologies such as nuclear and CCS," said the committee's chairman, Adair Turner, in a statement.

"The focus now should be creating a stable investment climate for renewables, making longer-term commitments to support less mature technologies and putting in place incentives to deliver significantly increased investment in renewable power and heat generation required over the next decade," he added.

The CCC report says its prediction on the share of nuclear power did not take into account the impact of the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, but that it did not expect the current review of nuclear safety in the United Kingdom to make major changes to nuclear policy.

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