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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 May 2007, 05:06 GMT 06:06 UK
Pointers to a low-carbon future
By Roger Harrabin
BBC News environment analyst

Three over-arching policy documents this week lay out the government's vision for a competitive, resource-efficient, low-carbon economy.

The La Rance tidal barrage near St Malo in Brittany
Green campaigners want even greater support for renewables

In the short term, that will mean a swifter streamlined planning process, a drive to capture maximum energy from stuff we throw away, more offshore renewable energy, and caps on CO2 from big commercial firms.

In the medium term it possibly means more nuclear, although this is no foregone conclusion.

Together these polices are designed to secure energy supplies before 2017 when nuclear power from existing stations runs down.

And it should keep the UK on track for its target of reducing carbon to 26-32% below 1990 levels by 32% by 2020 - but only if all the measures in this week's plans are delivered.

'Too timid'

Government sources say this week's announcements are not their last word.

They expect tougher targets on CO2 in the next few years, thanks to international agreements.

Environmentalists accuse the government of being far too timid.

They argue that given all its energy advantages the UK should be leading the world far more ambitiously to a low-carbon future.

They point out that high gas prices are driving generators towards coal, which is likely to push CO2 emissions up, not down.

But all three of this week's documents at least offer a pointer to Gordon Brown's future Britain.

Much of the thinking was based on Treasury-dominated reviews and they at least make an effort to reconcile some of the fiercely competing forces on the UK's forces.

Business delight

Critics argue the planning white paper is based on the false premise that delays in the planning system are making the UK uncompetitive.

This accusation was regularly levelled by the influential former CBI director Digby Jones, but the evidence appears scanty.

Some government insiders believe ministers will be forced to take back responsibility for ultimate decisions on planning before any planning bill gets approved

Industrialists gaze longingly across the Channel where French politicians generously strew nuclear stations, motorways and TGVs about.

The planning paper will make it easier in future for the UK to build large infrastructure projects like these - and wind farms.

Ministers intend to pare down the planning system so ministers hold a national debate about policy then hand detailed decisions to an independent planning commission.

Small household building schemes would no longer need planning permission if they did not impact on the neighbours.

This cutting of red tape has delighted business - and doubtless those wanting a roof extension, too - but green groups and civic groups fear that the new system has handed power to a quango from politicians and people.

Ministers promise the public will be consulted intensely - but in abolishing the muddling anarchic planning enquiry system they have removed the most powerful weapon of ordinary people to embarrass or delay government policy.

Some government insiders believe ministers will be forced to take back responsibility for ultimate decisions on planning before any planning bill gets approved.

The planning white paper puts carbon reductions at the heart of the planning process and obliges local councils to plan new buildings to optimise people's ability to walk or cycle to work.

But the broad emphasis on competitiveness could herald a building bonanza for airports, ports and motorways that would all drive up carbon emissions.

It will be impossible to tell the government's true direction until ministers have spelled out their planning statements for each specific sector.

Nuclear debate

If you listened to the exchanges in the Commons you would have thought the energy white paper was a nuclear white paper.

Tony Blair made a passionate plea for more nuclear power to keep on the lights - and was berated by the Conservatives' Alan Duncan for failing to spell out a time-table for nuclear new-build.

A decision on nuclear may still be unclear by the end of the year

The government, though, are tied by the recent High Court judgment into delaying their policies until the autumn so they can fully consult.

But even then there are possibly insuperable problems with nuclear - particularly the promise from Gordon Brown of no nuclear subsidy.

No firm wants to build a nuclear plant unless they can get certainty over the premium that would be paid for low-carbon energy.

And the government will have difficulty in doing that while also adhering to its stated policy of a liberalised energy market.

So a decision on nuclear may still be unclear by the end of the year.

The white paper did offer more support for renewables, though not enough to satisfy green campaigners.

The government will switch its price support scheme so more goes to offshore wave and wind power which are expensive to produce.

This is a tacit admission that the previous government policy of leaving it up to the market to pick the future energy mix has failed to generate enough power from renewables - partly because of planning problems with onshore wind.

Carbon storage

Other policies are designed to reduce our use of energy.

The scheme to cap emissions from big offices and supermarkets is intended to save 1m tonnes of carbon a year by 2020.

Traffic jam
The government admit meeting targets on traffic is a challenge

It will cover only the very biggest emitters (like the BBC) - the DTI blocked the scheme from extending further on the grounds that it would increase red tape.

Householders should benefit too from government insistence that power firms double the amount of money they will spend on helping us to insulate our homes.

And new gadgets on offer to help us read our electricity use will help a little, too.

There was some progress on carbon capture and storage - but it is not happening fast enough for BP, who have withdrawn their offer to set up a carbon capture plant at Peterhead, where they would have used to waste CO2 to get drive out the last drops of oil from their offshore field.

The government said they can't rush the policy because it involves large public subsidy. They still expect a carbon storage plant in the UK by around 2013.

Joined-up thinking

The biggest hole in the white paper is on transport.

The government admits that meeting targets to reduce emissions from cars is a challenge - and international aviation maintains its blessed position exempt from carbon cuts.

The waste strategy will also have a bearing on future energy use - both actively and passively

Ministers appear to want cutting CO2 to be politically painless, but sooner or later someone will have to take more controversial decisions.

If all the measures in the white paper were implemented they would help the government achieve their minimum target for cutting CO2 between 26% and 32% by 2020.

Green groups say that given the failure to meet previous 2010 targets the government is still complacent on climate.

The government say new policies will follow in future.

The waste strategy will also have a bearing on future energy use - both actively and passively.

Ministers aim to cut the amount of waste we produce (which will save energy), then they want to increase the amount of energy we get from the waste stream by burning more waste and getting more methane by putting food waste through anaerobic digesters.

They also want to recover more waste for recycling - particularly aluminium - which will save even more energy.

All the signs are there of joined-up thinking across government on the challenges posed by energy security and climate change.

Critics argue that they are not moving fast enough.

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