A row between government ministers is threatening to derail the UK’s commitment to tackling climate change, officials and campaigners have warned.
Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, is coming under increasing pressure from colleagues at the departments of business and transport, as well as the Treasury, not to set more stringent green targets for fear they could cost too much.
The dispute has intensified after it emerged that Vince Cable, the business secretary, wrote to Mr Huhne three weeks ago, spelling out his opposition to faster cuts in carbon emissions. Mr Cable cautioned against adopting the proposals set out by the Committee on Climate Change, a statutory body, to set a target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.
Mr Cable said in the letter: “Agreeing too aggressive a level risks burdening the UK economy, which would be detrimental to the UK, undermining the UK’s competitiveness and our attractiveness as a place to do business.”
Anti-climate change campaigners have warned that such moves could scupper attempts to decarbonise the economy and undermine the government’s promise to be the “greenest ever”.
The cabinet is set to decide within days whether to adopt the CCC’s ambitious proposals. David Kennedy, its chief executive, admitted there was concern in some departments about the recommendations, saying the business department had a “misguided” fear that the tough target could raise the price of electricity. But he insisted the 2030 target was needed to get to the agreed 2050 target, by which time Britain must cut emissions by 80 per cent.
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are already investigating scope for a legal challenge if the government comprehensively rejects the advice.
Amid business lobbying to avoid the increase, some Whitehall officials are even considering whether the UK could renege on its legal obligations, according to green activists.
Tom Burke, a former government adviser and founder of the climate change think-tank E3G, said: “There is a distinct conversation going on in some quarters among officials about whether or not we should try to renegotiate the [EU-wide] target to generate 15 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2020.”
Mr Burke said it was almost impossible that the legally binding targets could be renegotiated, especially as they have strong support from Germany. But Mr Huhne is already being pressed on his strategy, having admitted the UK faces “short-term challenges” to meet these targets. Renewables presently make up about 3 per cent of energy supply.
A person familiar with the matter at Downing Street confirmed the row, saying it was symptomatic of the conflict between companies and environmentalists. “You have ministers who talk to business every day and people who talk to the greens every day; it’s no wonder there is a clash.”
Separately, ministers are likely to water down a plan to force companies to publish their full carbon footprint amid concern from business lobbying groups.
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader, was among MPs who signed a letter last year calling for mandatory carbon reporting by companies, a decision that has to be made by next April under the Climate Change Act. But reporting may remain voluntary – or apply only to the largest companies – under a consultation that begins on Wednesday.