A burning issue - climate decision


Gordon Brown is facing his first major climate decision since taking office. As the Observer revealed on Sunday, the government is considering approving a new rush to coal that would guarantee that Britain would miss even its modest climate change targets.

The prime minister's decision over whether or not to approve these new coal-fired power stations - the first in 30 years - could very well be seen as a litmus test of his commitment to tackling climate change. For a leader who claimed to make climate change the totemic issue of his premiership, Tony Blair's domestic performance was an unmitigated disaster. Gordon Brown has inherited an energy policy in disarray.

His task now is to urgently clear up the contradictions and produce a coherent framework to get Britain back on track to meet the necessary 80% carbon reductions by 2050. Carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector - on a downward trend until Blair took office - are now rising. The few savings that are being accomplished are being wiped out by the growth in air transport alone. Tony Blair justified his obsession with nuclear power arguing that it would be a tool to fight climate change.

Yet, according to the Sustainable Development Commission, even if we were to replace our entire fleet of nuclear reactors it would reduce our carbon emissions by just 4% some time after 2024. These projected savings would easily be wiped out were the government to approve the plans, currently in the pipeline, for new coal stations.  To put it another way - despite all the noise, threats and posturing surrounding new nuclear power, all of this could be made utterly irrelevant by just one decision, to be made quietly in No 10 in the coming weeks.

Approval for E.ON to build the first of the proposed new coal plants - at Kingsnorth in Kent, would alone emit more than the 24 least polluting countries combined. It would lock Britain into the same centralized, inefficient power system that wastes two-thirds of the energy going into it as heat up the cooling towers. The issue of heat is the most glaring omission from Tony Blair's energy vision.

As Peter Luff, MP and chair of the trade industry select committee explained: " ... The energy white paper has some very serious omissions, particularly heat; 342 pages and just four pages on heat in the whole document, yet you say in the white paper that very nearly half of all the UK's carbon emissions come from heat. This is not a serious attempt to reduce carbon emissions ... " There is a more convenient solution. David Miliband, for one, seems to recognize this.

He commented: "In the next 30 years, we could see the same transformation in energy production that we have seen in computers over the past generations - with a growing reliance on small computers connected via a network rather than a traditional mainframe. For instance a large proportion of energy in Denmark and the Netherlands is produced on a decentralized basis - a transition that took around 20 years." As Britain looks to renew almost all of its energy infrastructure, Gordon Brown has been handed a historic opportunity to break from Blair's confused and fragmented approach to energy generation.

He could revolutionize our energy system by implementing renewables, energy efficiency and combined-heat-and-power (CHP) on an unprecedented scale. The prime minister should use his first 100 days to block new coal and to embrace the readily available solutions like decentralized energy that can ensure Britain is in the vanguard of the energy revolution and that it meets its binding EU commitment to produce 20% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. (

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