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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December 2004, 16:23 GMT
Q&A: UK's carbon targets
M11 motorway (PA)
The UK government is not making sufficient headway on CO2 from transport
The UK government has acknowledged that it is unlikely to meet its target of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by the year 2010. Our environment correspondent Richard Black looks at the background to this admission, and what it implies.

What is the 20% pledge?

It was made by the Labour Party in its manifesto for the 1997 election. Labour said that if elected, "We will lead the fight against global warming, through our target of a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2010".

It is a unilateral target. Later that year the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, and the UK's target for reducing emissions under the treaty came in at 12.5%. The government says - and independent observers agree - that the UK will meet this target.

Apart from the numbers, how do the targets differ?

The Kyoto Protocol commitment covers six greenhouse gases, whereas the Labour pledge refers only to carbon dioxide.

The target date for the Kyoto commitment is 2012; Labour's CO2 target is for 2010. In addition, it is possible for the UK to meet the Kyoto commitment by measures which do not involve cutting emissions. One of these is the Clean Development Mechanism which would, for example, allow the UK to fund renewable energy projects in developing countries.

So how is the UK doing now?

There should be a simple answer but there is not. In carbon accounting, as in its financial counterpart, magical things can be done with figures.

Climate change: The evidence and future predictions

A sentence from the government's Updated Emissions Projections, issued last month, gives a flavour: "The projection reflects recent revisions to carbon emission factors for coal used for electricity generation and natural gas, but does not yet include a further adjustment for a more recent change to other coal and oil emissions factors which have not been incorporated in the historical data."

The government says that when every adjustment has been made, emissions of carbon dioxide fell by 8.5% between 1990 and 2002. Friends of the Earth believes the true figure is around 7.5%.

Taking the six greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol together, government figures say the UK is already 14% below the 1990 baseline.

Why is the UK off-target on CO2?

The data suggests, simply, that measures aimed at curbing emissions in the last four years have failed. The Climate Change Programme, introduced in 2000, includes a range of measures:

  • For businesses - the climate change levy, a national emissions trading scheme, energy standards;
  • For transport - a 10-year spending plan on public transport, agreements with car manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency;
  • For homes - improved building regulations, the promotion of community heating schemes;
  • For agriculture - reductions in fertiliser use, forest protection.
These have made very little impact. The biggest reductions in carbon dioxide emissions occurred in the early 1990s, and are down to a large-scale switch from coal to gas in electricity generation.

Emissions from a UK power station

The government line is that "...projections for 2010 are higher than when we published the programme, partly because of emission factor revisions, but also because of revised expectations on economic growth, projected electricity demand, plant efficiency and availability, fuel prices and expectations about the impact of mitigation policies."

Environmental groups contend that the government repeatedly shies away from contentious policies which could have a significant impact on climate. The latest tactical retreat, they say, occurred in November when industry was told its limits for CO2 would be raised.

Why does it matter?

Symbolism is a crucial ingredient in the United Nations climate change negotiations which led to the Kyoto Protocol. Any "Child of Kyoto" treaty will have to draw in developing countries if it is to deliver meaningful global emissions cuts. Tony Blair has vowed to make climate change a global priority. It will be difficult for the UK to lead international negotiations and persuade developing countries to come on board if it fails to meet its own targets.

So what happens now?

Nationally, the government has launched a three-month consultation process which it hopes will give new impetus to bringing down carbon emissions. It says significant benefits can be found in several areas - the EU emissions trading scheme, energy efficiency, biofuels (where plants or, less commonly, animal waste are turned into fuel) and investment in public transport.

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