Belching chimneys instead of solar panels

The truth of Blair's environmental legacy

Last November Greenpeace anticipated the Prime Minister's departure by climbing to the top of Didcot power station's main chimney and painting "Blair's Legacy" in 20-foot-high letters down the side. The point was well made: as I pointed out in this column a month ago, coal has been enjoying a resurgence in Blair's Britain, despite being the most CO2- intensive fuel of all.

"But we have to generate power somehow, or the lights will go out," government ministers whinge helplessly. Greenpeace, never one to wield a stick without proffering an equivalent carrot, has offered an alternative to big centra lised coal, gas and nuclear power: decentralised energy generation, driven primarily by renewables. With solar panels, micro-wind and other technologies installed on rooftops and public buildings up and down the country, it suggests, a decentralised system could halve the UK electricity system's contribution to climate change in just a few decades.

Officially, the government supports a micro-generation strategy: a report commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry from the Energy Saving Trust reaches similar conclusions to Greenpeace, predicting that decentralised energy generation could cover between 30 and 40 per cent of the UK's electricity consumption by 2050. One might expect that, in response to this potential, the government would be enthusias tically backing the fledgling microrenewables sector. Instead, everything it has done so far seems calculated to strangle this new industry at birth.

In April 2006 the DTI launched the Low Carbon Buildings Programme as a way of channelling grants to householders and public sector bodies interested in installing renewable technologies, from solar hot water to ground-source heat pumps. It began in a blaze of pub licity - and was promptly starved of funds. A paltry £12m was allocated for the domestic sector over three years. Given that there are nearly 30 million households in the UK, that's less than 15p per home per year.

What then happened was worse than farce. As such tiny amounts of money were available, the DTI decided to ration the cash on a monthly basis. The result was an unseemly scramble. In January this year, the entire allocation was gone by noon on the first day. In March, it was all gone in 75 minutes. In the meantime, struggling solar and wind installation companies were forced to lay off staff and cancel expansion plans. Costs without grants remain prohibitive for all but the richest households.

Popular enthusiasm for renewable power has been squashed by government parsimony. In the past year, the grants programme has assisted in only 313 solar installations. At this rate of progress we'll have a solar panel on each rooftop in Britain - a necessary target - in about 76,000 years.

The sad tale makes Gordon Brown's announ cement this month of a new target of 100,000 new eco-homes seem particularly ironic, given that he has been responsible for pulling the purse strings on the Low Carbon Buildings Programme. Brown hardly rode to the rescue when he allocated a mere £6m in additional funds for the LCBP in the most recent Budget - an amount of Treasury loose change so small, it can only have been a calculated insult.

Contrast also this lack of support with the huge quantities of money thrown at those who, instead of helping to reduce emissions, are focused on making the climate-change problem worse. Road-builders in particular seem able to syphon government funds out of a bottomless account. According to Transport 2000, the likely total cost of M1 widening has reached £5.1bn - enough to pay for solar electricity-generating panels to be installed (at 50 per cent match funding) on at least a million UK homes. Adding an extra lane to this one motorway is costing £21m per mile. Thus, even with the Chancellor's extra allocation of cash, the entire three-year budget for the Low Carbon Buildings Programme - the only source of government assistance for the UK's entire domestic renewables sector - can be accommodated within about 1,400 metres of M1 widening.

Blair's legacy, just as Greenpeace suggested, will be visible not in spinning windmills or rooftop solar panels, but in belching power-station chimneys and motorway tarmac. It remains to be seen whether Brown can do any better, but past experience is hardly encouraging. What is certain is that we don't have another decade to waste.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger