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Britain under fire for not committing to renewable energy agency

Guardian Environment 19th January 2009

Britain's attempts to position itself as a centre for the green power industry suffered a blow today when it emerged that ministers have refused to commit the country to a new international body set up to promote renewable power.

The German environment secretary, who came up with the idea for the International Renewable Energy Agency, said he was disappointed countries such as the UK and America were dragging their feet.

"Please join the club. It's a club for the future," said Matthias Machnig from Abu Dhabi where he is attending the World Future Energy Summit. He plans to formally launch the new organisation in Bonn next Monday.

The new body, which has been planned for 18 months, was a "very important signal" that nations were committed to a greener future, the minister said.

Asked whether he was frustrated at Britain's unwillingness to sign up so far, he said: "I don't comment on the British way of making decisions. Maybe it is going to happen."

France, Holland and Spain are among the 60 countries that have joined. Machnig said various countries were putting themselves forward to host the organisation.

There is mounting hope that the US will join once Barack Obama gets his feet under the table at the White House.

Britain is thought to be hesitant to put its name to the group because it is viewed with suspicion by the International Energy Agency.

The IEA, established by Britain and America in the aftermath of the 1970s oil shock, does not want to see its role eroded. But the green energy sector has become more and more critical of the Paris-based body, claiming it is an oil lobby group with a vested interest against wind and solar. A recent report by the IEA was deemed by some critics to have underplayed the role of renewables, something it vehemently denies.

Machnig said the new body could have a wider international membership because the IEA was essentially "an OECD-driven agency".

Britain has liked to see itself as a leader in the fight against climate change and has trumpeted London as the centre of carbon trading and other clean technology innovation.

Machnig has used the Gulf summit to call on the European Union to hold its nerve and stick to carbon reduction targets in the face of the credit crunch.

Machnig's warnings came alongside others from politicians, environmentalists and even members of royalty about the dangers of not acting quickly enough to counter global warming.

Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, the Prince of Orange, said a "revolution" was needed to hasten the introduction of new cleaner technologies.

He made an analogy with the Roman empire, which he claimed came to an end partly because of "peak wood". The Romans allowed Europe to be deforested so depleting a source of cheap fuel.

The prince also took a sideswipe at those promoting carbon, capture and storage, saying it could "distract" people from the primary objective of ridding the world of its dependence on fossil fuels.

James Alix Michel, president of the Seychelles, attacked the west for failing to do enough to tackle an issue which could put his own country under water.

While the Seychelles was working hard to become a carbon-neutral country, others were not.

"We find it difficult to understand why countries with far greater resources fail to follow suit," he said. "The time for straddling the fence is over. We can save these (endangered) communities if only we have the will."

But Michel also railed against longhaul aviation taxes, saying they unfairly penalised countries like his own which need longhaul visitors for much of their wealth. Developing countries were already suffering disproportionately from the credit crunch, he said. "When large economies sneeze, small islands don't get a cold but a fever."

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