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The Sustainable Development Commission has given its backing to a proposed tidal power project in the Severn Estuary, despite objections from environmentalists.

The commission published a report today analysing how the tidal resources in the UK could be tapped for clean energy. It says tidal power has the potential to generate 10 per cent of the UK's energy budget, if properly exploited. The proposed barrage of the Severn Estuary alone could provide more than four per cent of our electricity needs.

But the impact of building it would be to destroy 75 per cent of the existing intertidal habitat, an area that is protected by international law. The commission also warns that there is a high risk of other related but unsustainable development as a result of the barrage project. There would also be a knock-on effect on the local area and economy.

Last week, business and industry secretary John Hutton gave his support to the £14bn project, describing it as "visionary". He promised a feasibility study of the project, which in itself would cost several million pounds.

The SDC's report makes clear that it would only support the barrage on the condition that it could be made to comply with European conservation laws on wildlife habitats and creation of compensatory habitats. But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says there are alternatives that would do more to cut carbon emissions, without sacrificing the estuary.

It calls on the SDC to consider "other options for harnessing the Severn's tidal power such as tidal stream".

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director, said tackling climate change is hugely important, but that it can be done "without destroying irreplaceable national treasures like the Severn estuary".

"The government should be aiming to help [and] not destroy wildlife, and that applies to proposals for green energy schemes just as much as new supermarkets or housing estates," he added. ®

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