The eagerly awaited white paper and accompanying strategy for renewable energy set out how the UK aims to meet its national target of slashing greenhouse gases by 34% from 1990 levels by 2020 as well as its EU obligation to produce 15% of energy from renewable sources by the same date.
The plan sets obligations for emissions cuts in all sectors of the economy, but the most far-reaching change is expected of the power sector, as "greening the electricity mix" is expected to deliver half of the total cuts.
The government believes that the strategy could create up to 400,000 new green jobs without a major rise in energy bills. Moreover, it would contribute to the country's energy security by halving the need to import gas.
"Renewables, nuclear, clean fossil fuels, as this plan sets out, are the trinity of low carbon and the future of energy in Britain," said Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband.
Renewable energy should deliver a third of British electricity by 2020, while clean coal and nuclear would cover a further 10%. The share of renewables would have to rise from the current 5.5%, mainly with the help of wind, but the government also sees a role for wave and tidal power, hydro and bioenergy.
To speed up the connection of renewable electricity to the grid, the government pledged up to £6 million for the development of a smart grid. It also said it would increase financial incentives for developers in the field.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology gets a prominent role in the low-carbon strategy, as the government plans to fund up to four demonstration plants in the country (EurActiv 28/04/09). It also announced that it would establish a special Office of Carbon Capture and Storage to support work on developing the pioneering technology to bring it to a commercial scale.
Renewables goal 'unfeasible'
Last week, however, a report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) criticised the government's plans, arguing that favouring wind power would deter investment in nuclear and clean coal.
"While we have generous subsidies for wind power, we urgently need the national planning statements needed to build new nuclear plants. If we carry on like this we will end up putting too many of our energy eggs in one basket," said John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general.
The UK business lobby urged the government to reduce projections for wind energy by 2020, shifting support to nuclear power instead.
The renewable energy strategy voices some concerns over the proposed increase in wind generation, which "could have implications for the security of electricity supply".
The paper argues, however, that these can be managed with various strategies until 2020. "We will continue to keep these issues under close review, and take any necessary action to ensure this continues to be manageable," it states, leaving the door open for back-pedalling at a later date.
Setting a precedent for Copenhagen
The UK government sees its 2020 plan as a model for other nations to follow so that the Copenhagen climate conference in December delivers an ambitious global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2012.
"Developed countries must now show leadership and ambition if they're to be taken seriously by developing countries. It's why I believe every developed country needs a low-carbon transition plan," Miliband said. He added that the UK plan shows his country's willingness to play a part in the Copenhagen deal "with real policies and real cuts in emissions".
The UK plans to reach its 2020 emissions cuts through domestic action, without purchasing international offset credits from climate mitigation projects in developing countries. Nevertheless, it could still decide to buy credits if an ambitious agreement in Copenhagen induces the EU to increase its target, requiring tighter emissions cuts in the UK.