From reforms to the UK's renewable energy strategy to tackling the nuclear question, the new energy and climate change secretary faces a daunting in-tray• What the coalition means for environmental policies
James Murray for BusinessGreen, part of the Guardian Environment Network
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 13 May 2010 10.20 BST
Chris Huhne has been appointed energy and climate change secretary - here are the issues he must face immediately:
1. What are you going to do about the nuclear option?
You are a member of a party that has long been staunchly opposed to nuclear energy, but now you are the energy secretary in a government that wants to move forward with plans for a new fleet of nuclear reactors.
The agreement between the Lib Dems and Conservatives insists you have " agreed a process" that allows Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while letting the government pass the National Policy Statements needed for new nuclear power plants.
It sounds OK on paper, but hardly smacks of the stable investment climate energy firms will need if they are to invest billions in nuclear. How will you reassure them that they can and should continue work on new reactors?
2. How do you plan to reform the Renewables Obligation?
It has never been perfect, but the big renewable energy developers understand and are comfortable with the current form of renewable energy subsidy. The Lib-Con coalition has agreed to effectively replace it with an extended feed-in tariff, while maintaining the current banded ROCs.
This was a Conservative idea and they said that moving towards a feed-in tariff would simplify the system, but does extending one subsidy scheme while retaining the previous regime really make things simpler?
More importantly, at what level will you set the feed-in tariff for different technologies? Too high and you are wasting bill payers money, too low and you will cripple the renewable sector. The UK is already facing an ominously tight deadline to meet its renewable target and any uncertainty for investors will only make meeting it harder. This needs to be sorted out quickly.
3. What are you going to do with councils that block wind farms?
Your predecessor, Ed Miliband, said the main reason the UK had such a poor performance on renewable energy over the past decade was because Tory councils blocked proposed wind farms. Both Miliband and your colleague Simon Hughes wanted renewable energy targets for individual councils to stop them opposing each and every renewables project. But any move to force through onshore wind farms will face fierce opposition from your new allies on the Conservative back benches.
The planning system remains the biggest barrier to new renewable energy capacity. How do you plan to address it?
While we're talking about renewables, the Lib-Con deal promises measures to encourage marine energy. What are they? This is one of the few green areas where the UK leads the world and it needs help – fast.
4. A floor price on carbon – really?
The Conservatives want a floor price on carbon and the Lib Dems have agreed. But how do you plan to impose it? The EU emissions trading scheme is a pan-European market, so how do you intend to effectively impose a floor price on carbon for British firms? Even if you can do it, how do you plan to stop them being left at a competitive disadvantage to their European counterparts? Most importantly, at what level do you set the floor price? Recent experiences have proven that anything under €20-€30 (£17-£25.50) is less than useless for many low-carbon technologies, but that is far higher than the current carbon price.
5. Can the green investment bank really make a difference?
Almost everyone agrees with some kind of low-carbon infrastructure bank in principle, but it will have to be pretty sizeable to make a substantive difference. Where will the money come from?
6. How will you sell green home loans?
Regardless of whether you call it the green deal or the pay-as-you-save scheme, the plans for a new green home loan scheme are to be welcomed. They should help overcome the upfront costs that stop many people improving the energy efficiency of their home. The only issue is whether you can sell it and get people to take out the loans. It is going to need a serious marketing strategy – any ideas?
7. What are you going to do about waste?
No one wants to talk about rubbish when they are trying to win votes, which is why the Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos only included a few sentences on waste strategy. But it is one of the most neglected areas of environmental policy and a sector where the UK could build genuine leadership. Talk of zero-waste ambitions and the promise of measures to encourage anaerobic digestion are welcome, but where is the detail?
8. What will you say when BAA come hammering on your door?
You've agreed to cancel the third runway at Heathrow, block any new runways at Gatwick and Stansted, and introduce a new per-plane levy on flights to replace the air passenger duty. In short, you've made an enemy of the aviation industry from day one. Many environmentalists would say this is no bad thing, but the industry is bound to argue that the UK needs more airport capacity. Are you going to stand up to them, or could we still get a Boris Island runway in the Thames Estuary?
9. How are you going to keep DECC relevant?
Even the government's staunchest critics would accept that the formation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was a success. Under the leadership of Ed Miliband it enjoyed a high profile and the ear of Number 10. How do you plan to keep the Department's work near the top of the political agenda when all the focus will be on spending cuts and the health of the new coalition? The PR side of the job is going to be important, particularly with the Mexico summit coming up in November.
10. What are you going to say to Simon Hughes and Greg Clark when you bump into them in the Commons?