21 Mar 2012

Budget is a ‘polluter’s charter’, green lobby warn

George Osborne infuriates environmental campaigners after he announces £3bn in tax breaks for new drilling in the North Sea. Science Editor Tom Clarke reports.

George Osborne infuriates environmental campaigners after he announces £3bn in tax breaks for new drilling in the North Sea. (Getty)

Typically, environmentalists criticise budgets for a conspicuous lack of measures to protect the planet. But it was things the budget does include that has been exercising them today, and they’re not holding back:

“This Budget sticks two fingers up at David Cameron’s promise to build a clean future,” said Andy Atkins from Friends of the Earth.

“Support for British manufacturing, green jobs and greening the economy should have been the cornerstone of Osborne’s budget. Instead we got a polluters’ charter,” said John Sauven director of Greenpeace.

One of the environmentalists’ biggest concerns right now is the dirty way Britain generates energy. Much of what they are looking for from government are ways to increase the efficient use of energy and to build renewable energy generation like solar, wind and tidal power.

What they got today was essentially a budget to burn gas.

The Chancellor announced measures to radically increase the number of gas-fired power plants in the UK. He also unveilled new tax incentives for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea and a £3bn allowance for new gas fields west of Shetland.

The Chancellor justified his plans by telling the house “Gas is cheap.” Very few analysts would agree with that statement – it’s never been more expensive – but given the costs of building alternatives like nuclear and offshore wind it probably does, to a Chancellor, look that way.

Mr Osborne did mention the importance of renewable energy several times – especially in terms of infrastructure and jobs. But always in words tempered by the fact renewables would be expensive to build:

“Renewable energy will play a crucial part in Britain’s energy mix but I will always be alert to the costs we’re asking families and business to bear,” he said.

The renewable power industry are glad they got several mentions, but like environmentalists, they saw little in the budget that supports clean power: “These statements are intellectually incoherent with the measures coming through,” said Leonie Greene spokesperson for the Renewable Energy Association.

One signal this gas-fired budget sends is that the Chancellor thinks other low-carbon energy options, like offshore wind and nuclear power are just too expensive for the exchequer right now.

There was anger too over plans to expand roads and build new airport capacity in the South East.

Environmentalists thought they had already won that battle. But more cars and planes mean transport emissions look set to keep rising under the current government. Statements about growth, driven by a simpler, faster planning system also sounds, to most green groups, like their worst nightmare. But they have to wait until next week to learn the detail of the planning reforms.

There was one prominent environmental law threatened with “simplification.” The Carbon Reduction Commitment – a levy on business to improve their energy efficiency and reduce emissions, has long been seen as complex and punitive.

But if the Chancellor does change it – he’ll have a job replacing it with something better that still doesn’t strangle business. “Government must ensure that the scheme or any replacement continues to deliver significant carbon reductions. We urgently need a long term, consistent policy framework,” said Martin Baxter of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment.

The Chancellor’s new-found passion for gas makes it reasonable to ask whether he is preparing for U-tuns on significant support for offshore wind and nuclear power. We won’t have to wait long to find out. Their future is bound up in the ongiong “electricity market reform”, the details of which is expected in the coming months.