The Science Museum is one of London’s best-loved landmarks, largely because generations of children have been taken there by their parents to play with its increasingly sophisticated sets of hands-on gadgets. But it also houses the originals of some of the iconic inventions that made possible Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
Courtesy UK Dept. of Energy and Climate Change via FlickrThat revolution, of course, was powered by coal, so it was appropriate that British ministers chose the museum last week to announce that, two centuries later, the country is to turn its back on the world’s dirtiest fuel. They were there to unveil a series of policy documents, totalling some 640 pages, detailing how Britain would develop a low-carbon economy, multiply many fold its use of renewable energy, and achieve one of the world’s most ambitious targets for cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
In the process, they promised to create some 400,000 new green jobs and to revive the country’s economy by grabbing a bigger share of the world’s market for low-carbon goods and services, which, they estimate, already stands at a massive $4.5 trillion.
“Our plan will strengthen our energy security,” said the 39-year-old Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband. “It seeks to be fair to the most vulnerable. It seizes industrial opportunity. And it rises to the moral challenge of climate change.”
The plan partly stems from last year’s passage of Britain’s Climate Change Act, the first in the world to set legally binding, statutory carbon budgets for a nation. The Labour government accepted the recommendation of a specially established expert committee that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut by 34 percent of 1990 levels by 2020.
One of the documents sets out in detail how this is to be done. Because Britain has already reduced emissions substantially since 1990 — largely through the closure of almost all its coal mines after the Thatcher government broke the miners unions in the 1980s — emissions will only have to be cut by 18 percent from today’s levels to reach the target.
The biggest reductions are planned for energy supply (with a 38 percent cut from todays levels), and homes (30 percent), with the public sector (27 percent) and transport (14 percent) in third and fourth place.
In the public sector, the document allocates individual targets for each government department. Meanwhile, the emissions reductions for energy supply — and to a lesser extent for homes and transport — will be largely made by a dramatic expansion in renewable energy.
Under a European Union directive, agreed to by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government, Britain is obliged to get 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. This represents an enormous change, because at present the country gets less than two percent from them — the third lowest proportion in Europe after Malta and Luxembourg, even though it has the best resources of them in the entire continent.
Ministers mainly plan to achieve this seven-and-a-half-fold expansion in just 12 years by increasing the proportion of electricity generated by renewables to 30 percent, from its present 5.5 percent — another huge transformation. Most of this will come from thousands of new wind turbines, both onshore and increasingly offshore.
“Feed-in tariffs” will take effect next April to provide money to householders who generate their own electricity, largely from rooftop photovoltaic panels, and a year later there will be a similar incentive for those that produce renewable heat as from solar water heaters or ground source heat pumps.
The government also plans to reduce emissions from homes through a “house by house, street by street transformation” on energy efficiency and by providing smart meters, which enable families to monitor their energy consumption, to every home in the country.
On transport, the plan promises to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new cars, encourage low emissions buses and electric cars, and — more controversially — calls for using biofuels for 10 percent of the country’s vehicle fuel by 2020.
The last element in the plan is a “low carbon industrial strategy,” which ministers promise will “transform our whole economy and change our industrial landscape, our supply chain and the way in which we all work and consume.”
It adds up to an impressive package, which has been generally welcomed by environmental groups. But there are still grounds for concern. For a start, ministers do not plan that the greenhouse gas cuts will really start to kick in until after 2012, when the Brown government may well be out of office. The planned levels for the feed-in tariffs appear to too low to encourage a rapid expansion of rooftop renewables, while other incentives are being phased in slowly. A sense of urgency appears to be lacking.
But if the program does succeed, sparking a green industrial revolution in Britain, then the Science Museum, as its launch pad, will have something else to commemorate.
Read UK climate secretary Ed Miliband’s recent op-ed for The Guardian. Below: Miliband discusses the low-carbon plan.