So it looks like the rumours were true. If The Guardian's leaked documents are to be believed several Ministers are genuinely committed to watering down renewable energy targets to the point at which they are effectively abolished.
Senior officials within the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) have apparently made their mind up that nuclear power with its massive subsidies, fears over waste disposal and concerns about the carbon footprint of related mining activities still represents the best means of developing a low carbon economy and are advising Gordon Brown to lobby against proposed EU targets that 20 per cent of energy must come from renewable sources by 2020 on the grounds that meeting them would prove too costly. It really is as if the Stern Review never happened.
Now it would be easy (and entirely justified) to join the environmentalists and the renewable energy industry in ranting long and loud about the crass stupidity and rank hypocrisy of a government that constantly brags about its leadership on climate change and then seriously countenances a move to undermine a central foundation of Europe's climate change policy. A move that would send out a clear signal that the government is not serious about renewables and force cleantech investment overseas into the arms of governments that understand the role clear and ambitious target play in driving the development of a low carbon economy.
It would be equally tempting to point out that Business Secretary John Hutton, the man reportedly poised to advise the prime minister to abandon any pretence that the government desires a genuinely rapid expansion of the UK's renewable energy industry, is the same John Hutton who earlier this month declared (with a straight face) that government policy meant the "UK is fast becoming a magnet for renewable energy investment".
However, what is interesting about the whole sorry saga is not so much that the government is considering watering down the targets, but how on earth it managed to get itself into such a hypocritical situation in the first place.
I've posted on this before, but almost every environmental policy announcement currently coming out of Whitehall bears the hallmarks of one almighty ministerial turf war.
According to The Guardian, one of the many sobering admissions in the leaked document is that there are "different priorities across government departments about how to get renewables to 20 per cent of the electricity mix". It is an assessment that could be applied to almost every environmental target the government has set.
The government's ever handy policy of not commenting on leaks means it is unclear what is being made of this morning's reports, but it is reasonable to speculate that many Defra and Foreign Office officials must be absolutely furious to see much of their hard work to establish the UK as a perceived leader in the fight against climate change being so carelessly thrown away by proposals from their counterparts at BERR.
But if they are furious they shouldn't be surprised.
The fact is that the preposterously-titled BERR (what is the difference between business and enterprise and what happens if, heaven forbid, the government gets one of its regulatory frameworks right? Does it keep reforming regulations because that is what it says above the door?) simply has a different remit than Defra and other departments and as a result it will inevitably propose a different environmental strategy that suits its goals.
BERR's job is to create a positive environment for UK business and given that core remit it is hardly surprising that it has decided that an expansion of a proven if controversial technology in the form of nuclear power combined with a continuation of fossil fuel-based power plants is a lower risk and more cost effective means of guaranteeing the nation's energy supply than massive investment in an embryonic renewable energy sector. It is quite right in its assessment that EU targets for renewables would prove costly and difficult to meet, and with its primary goal being the delivery of short term GDP growth it is within its rights to propose that investing to meet these targets is a risk the government should not take.
In contrast, those departments that see cutting carbon emissions and promoting international action on climate change as their top priorities will inevitably argue that while meeting these target will prove costly the long term benefits in terms of reducing emissions, stimulating clean tech investment and cementing European leadership in the development of the low carbon economy are well worth the short term costs.
Such conflicting prioirties are becoming an all too frequent challenge for Defra, which only this weekend was reported to be pushing a reluctant Treasury to exempt carbon offsetting from VAT. No decision has yet been made but it seems highly likely the Treasury, with its remit of maximising tax revenues, will rule that carbon offsetting represents a service and under EU law must face the VAT levy.
The government's climate change policy is fast becoming a case study on how not to run green corporate initiative. Admittedly it is far more complex to run a country than a business but the government has set up a management structure where each and every department appears to have conflicting goals and priorities.
In the business realm, the solution would be to develop an environmental strategy at board level that incorporates all major departments and makes all managers directly accountable to the chief executive for their environmental performance. It may need to happen on a much larger scale but exactly the same principles hold true for governments.
The only way for Gordon Brown to end the ministerial conflicts currently dogging environmental policy and develop a coherent climate change strategy is to make it abundantly clear that the transition to a low carbon economy is his top priority and that the finance (The Treasury), operations (BERR, Home Office and Foreign Office), and environment (Defra) departments must work together to deliver on his goals.
If ministers were sure that they were being judged as much on their ability to deliver a low carbon economy as on their traditional targets then John Hutton would not be grumbling about the cost of accelerating the development of renewable energy capacity and would instead be working out how best to hit the EU's targets.
Hopefully the climate change bill and its legally binding emission reduction targets will make this priority clear, but until it does we can expect much more ministerial wrangling over the government's environmental initiatives.
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