The UK will reduce its carbon emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by the year 2050, the Brown government has pledged. Plans to subsidise household wind turbines and solar panels were also announced, and a warning was given to energy companies to stop overcharging poorer customers and those with no access to gas.
The plans were announced by the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Miliband the Younger.
"We will amend the Climate Change Bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, and that target will be binding in law," he told Parliament yesterday.
Miliband felt that things were well in hand as far as large-scale renewable power plant was concerned.
"The Renewables Obligation has tripled supply in the last five years and we are making further changes in its structure, in planning policy and in access to the grid," he said.
The more hardline renewables supporters have suggested that large-scale renewables cannot coexist on the grid with nuclear. Miliband didn't agree, stating that "investment in nuclear power" is needed.
However he skipped briefly over that and onto home microgeneration, saying:
"I also believe that ... guaranteed prices for small-scale electricity generation, feed-in tariffs, have the potential to play an important role, as they do in other countries."
A separate announcement will be forthcoming on this, but it appeared that Miliband was in favour specifically of renewable home microgeneration. That would be mainly rooftop wind turbines and perhaps some solar-electric panels - although authoritative independent research suggests that equipment of this type usually fails to save as much carbon as was emitted by making it. The more viable use of gas-fuelled combined heat and power kit (CHP) would unfortunately worsen the national addiction to gas, so it's to be hoped that Miliband isn't planning to subsidise that.
He might be, though, as he went on to say:
"Heating produces almost half of Britain's carbon emissions, and cleaner sources of heat can help us meet our target in 2050 and the milestones on the way. I'm clear we need to make rapid progress on this too and will make further announcements soon."
But this might more reasonably refer to home solar-thermal gear, which is actually a pretty sound idea. Rather than expensive photovoltaic panels which can never pay for themselves without massive subsidies and soft loans, solar-thermal needn't be more complex than piping water through old radiators mounted on the roof and painted black. In sunny weather, this can save a lot of power on water heating, and it doesn't cost a mint. Funnily enough, almost all home microgeneration kit now in existence is of this type.
Another kind of home microgen which can make a lot of sense is heat pumps, particularly those drawing heat from underground. The energy needed to move heat into the house from somewhere else is much less than that required to generate heat from scratch.
Unfortunately, heat pumps are expensive - and you really need a bit of open ground to dig up as well. But the government could easily do more to encourage the routine laying of heat pump kit as new buildings go up.
Meanwhile, it seems that Miliband had the chiefs of the big six energy firms in and told them to stop overcharging people with no gas, and also those on pre-payment meters - generally poor folk. He says he'll be grilling them again in a month, and woe betide any of them who hasn't sharpened up their act.
As for the 80 per cent reductions in CO2 by 2050, that will largely be in the hands of a future generation of UK politicians. However the UK and Europe are making nearer-term pledges which will be quite challenging enough, to the tune of 20 per cent cuts by 2020 - or even 30 per cent if a global deal can be reached at the Copenhagen summit next year.
However, for now it appears that aviation and shipping won't be included. This is mainly because it would be too complex to share out the emissions from international journeys, but it's also quite convenient as aircraft are extremely hard to green up, lacking the power and weight margins enjoyed by road transport.
No doubt the emissions quotas will tend to put electric, hydrogen or other potentially low-emission vehicles on the roads, of course. But it just could be that the aviation carbon loophole - coupled with the need to limit carbon-mungous motorway construction - will see the troublesome middle-distance transport segment served more by cars which fly some part of the way. ®