Page last updated at 19:29 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 20:29 UK

Tyre tracks on the low carbon road

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Congestion in central London (Image: BBC)
The reality of cycling in London, as in most other British cities, is all too often a frustrating, particulate-drenched crawl along gutters of urban canyons blocked solid with angry metal

The current UK government carries the scars of repeated blows from the environmental lobby over its failure to "walk the walk" on climate change.

So with some interest as to whether the umbrella of the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan would shelter it from further blows, I decided to ride the ride by bicycle from the BBC's Bush House to a news conference telling us about the plan at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - a journey of about a mile under the rain-pregnant London skies.

It was not a promising start. Within seconds I was tucked up underneath the high-emitting end of a diesel-powered double-decker bus, stopped in my tracks by congestion, the particulate wind chugging through the holes in my cycle helmet.

Half of the journey was a frustrating scoot past serried ranks of stationary buses, vans and cabs - moving faster than them, swallowing their exhaust, forced onto the cobbled Strand central reservation by their blockage of the road surface.

So it was with some irony that I subsequently listened to Business Secretary Lord Mandelson comment that one impact of the low carbon plan would be that he could ride his bicycle more.

London Mayor Boris Johnson is also a cyclist - I have overtaken him several times down the years, though I doubt he recognised it - but still, the reality of cycling in London, as in most other British cities, is all too often a frustrating, particulate-drenched crawl along gutters of urban canyons blocked solid with angry metal.

Transports of delight

Transport finds a place in the low carbon vision - that in itself is worth a remark, given the Department of Transport's traditional reluctance to espouse anything with a hint of greenery.


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Twenty percent of the carbon cuts to 2020 is supposed to come from transport; the bulk of that is from road traffic.

The government is pushing major increases in vehicle fuel efficiency.

Statistics suggest that for cars at least, something is happening, with emissions on a plateau for the last decade despite the continued rise in kilometres travelled; even so, a hike of 40% in the fuel efficiency of new cars in just 11 years is nothing if not ambitious.

It is planning to equip up to six towns with recharging stations for electric cars - a companion to the existing programme of testing low-carbon vehicles in locations across the country.

On the railways, electrification is the decarbonising method of choice - although whether it does decarbonise depends where the juice comes from, of course - and the details of how much might be electrified are yet to come.

Proposed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions per UK sector (Image: BBC)

The bulk of the planned carbon reductions - taking the country 34% below 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 - are supposed to come from energy and other heavy industry.

It is a logical choice. These companies have a recent history of decarbonising, and they are to some extent already incentivised financially through the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

Even so, the size of the planned transformation is breathtaking. A six-fold increase in wind energy output in just 11 years, and much of that to come offshore.

And here is where some of the projections start to appear a little fanciful. Three thousand offshore wind turbines by 2020 means that one has to be installed nearly every day between now and then - surely a big ask?

Industry insiders contend it can be done. A guaranteed market for offshore wind installation will, they say, bring investment in installation capacity - and the more experience installers and operators gain, the cheaper and quicker it will become.


How do you build a wind farm out at sea? Environment correspondent David Shukman visits Gunfleet Sands, the site of a major new offshore project

On the home front, the target of putting smart meters in 26 million homes by 2020 is similarly perturbing at first sight.

It works out at more than 6,000 per day.

But on a different facet of the plan, this is exactly the sort of project that would generate some of the projected new 400,000 "green jobs" - although what exactly constitutes a "green job" I am still waiting to find out.

Some of the new ones, presumably, will involve installing home insulation. The Great British Refurb plan launched earlier this year projects that every house in the country will go through an assessment and refit to curb energy use.

Intervening period

The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan is a big beast. The size of its four constituent booklets, totalling 760-odd pages, suggests that saving paper has not been a priority.

It is easy to criticise governments when they publish such programmes. Indeed, the UK government has published so many energy white papers and low carbon building plans and renewable transport consultations and so on over the last few years that it would be easy to greet this one with a cynical rictus.

Ed Miliband: The transformation would be like switching from "town gas to North Sea gas in the 1970s"

I don't think that would be right. This feels different. It is comprehensive in scope - far too comprehensive to summarise effectively in a news article.

It is thoughtful, ambitious, and - for just about the first time I can remember - gives the impression that the various government departments know what meeting their headline targets will entail in practice.

That does not mean, of course, that the targets will be met. Many factors can get in the way - including a change of government.

Although the Conservatives have welcomed the plan in general, it is not clear that they will endorse its every aspect.

Lord Mandelson used the word "intervene" so many times during the news conference that I thought for a moment he was about to metamorphose into Michael Heseltine, and as we all know his intervening before breakfast and lunch and dinner did not curry favour with every fellow Tory.

Where shadow climate and energy secretary Greg Clark did hit home was with his contention that the last 12 years have been a "time of opportunity lost" - although Labour would no doubt argue that some of the transition plan's elements could have been initiated even before Tony Blair came to power.

Over that period - a generally prosperous one for the global economy - Japan and Germany have put major sums into solar and other renewables, Denmark built a world-class industry making wind turbines, Sweden mandated home insulation standards that keep houses toasty in the depths of winter.

Norway top-sliced revenue from its boom years of North Sea oil and gas into a special fund that now contains about $240bn - some of which can build energy facilities for the time when its fossil fuels run out.

The UK did none of these things. The government speaks of being a leader in climate change - and in some senses it is - but from another standpoint, the energy transition plan is one giant catch-up exercise, and one that will be initiated during straitened financial times.

The desperate state of low carbon transport policies is shown up by the inclusion in the government's literature, as an example of things working well, of a new facility at Leeds railway station where people can store their bicycles safely.

What a radical idea. Perhaps we should tell the Dutch and the French and the Japanese about it to show our leadership… or maybe not.

During the summer, I will stay with friends in Germany who also like to cycle. When we ride the ride there, we will go for kilometres along tracks away from motorised vehicles - no congestion, no particulates, no accidents - low-carbon transport as it should be enjoyed.

The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan feels different, yes; but it also feels very, very late.

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