Cabinet row could derail UK green agenda

The UK government has a big decision to make next week: whether to endorse the proposals by the Committee on Climate Change to set stringent emissions reductions targets for 2030.

The so-called “fourth carbon budget” (the other three have already been made policy) sets out that the UK should cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent on 1990 levels by 2030.

Chris Huhne (pictured on the left), the energy secretary, is broadly in favour, having put tackling climate change at the heart of his department’s agenda. But he is facing resistance from an unexpected source: his Lib Dem cabinet colleague Vince Cable (on the right).

Cable, the business secretary, is worried that adopting such tough targets will mean additional costs on intensive energy users – in other words, businesses. So three weeks ago he wrote a letter to his party leader Nick Clegg and George Osborne, the chancellor, stating his opposition.

Prime minister David Cameron made a big play of his environmental credentials when he first took over the Conservatives, and then promised to make the coalition government the “greenest ever“.

But with growth in the doldrums and the British public increasingly looking for a recovery strategy, he and his hawkish chancellor may find cost a more compelling factor in this decision than carbon reduction. If they have support from Cable, a left-leaning member of the Lib Dems (a party which has always stressed its green commitment), they may decide they have enough political cover to push for a rejection of the CCC’s recommendations.

If that happens, green campaigners will be furious. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are already weighing up their legal options to see whether they could challenge such a decision in the courts. Friends of the Earth have said they would also call for Huhne’s resignation in such a situation.

The cabinet is unlikely to be overly flustered by the threat of angry greens. But Cameron may decide that with his Lib Dem coalition partners already politically weakened, he could ill afford for calls for the resignation of the energy secretary, and so decide to play it safe by accepting the proposals of a statutory body.

Whichever way the decision goes, the 2030 target is in the long term, a secondary issue. The UK remains committed to cutting emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, which promises to be an even tougher challenge.

Further reading: How top Lib Dems clashed over green agenda

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