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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 November 2005, 14:52 GMT
Q&A: Blair's climate strategy
Gas emissions
The global coalition on climate is fragile
The UK government's climate strategy due last Spring will almost certainly be delayed until the New Year, the BBC has learned.

Even when it is eventually published, key details in several policy areas will be missing.

BBC environment correspondent Roger Harrabin answers the key questions on the prospects for the government keeping its manifesto promise of cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 20% by 2010.

Q: The Prime Minister has been making speeches that suggest his enthusiasm for targets to reduce CO2 emissions is waning. What is going on?

Mr Blair's statements on climate have appeared ambivalent of late. I understand he was urged by Geoffrey Norris, his influential industry adviser, to drop the 20% CO2 target at the request of the CBI which says it might affect competitiveness (other leading firms want clear targets on CO2 so they can invest in clean technologies).

I hear that Mr Norris then told officials that Mr Blair was re-thinking the 20% target - but that key players, especially Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett, insisted on sticking to the manifesto pledge to show international leadership on climate. Downing Street has declined to comment.

Tony Blair, AP
Mr Blair's comments are seen as a reflection of the international landscape
In any case, Mr Blair's recent comments are less contradictory than they seem. Two of his speeches cast doubt on international willingness to accept targets and timetables to cut CO2. Both were seized by climate sceptics as evidence that he accepted their opinion that targets in the Kyoto treaty will damage economies.

But in between those speeches Mr Blair wrote an Observer article stating: "Climate change will only be addressed through both technological development and a robust, inclusive and binding international treaty. We are working hard to achieve both."

The truth, according to government sources, is that Mr Blair has accepted that however much he pushes Mr Bush to set caps on CO2, the President will not budge. He has also accepted that the Chinese will not accept targets on CO2 when their per capita emissions are a fraction of those in America and Europe.

So his statements are simply a reflection of the international landscape. Government officials are infuriated, though, that he seems not to have anticipated the shiver his comments would send through the fragile global coalition on climate. They privately complain that he is increasingly beset by domestic political problems and has too little energy and concentration left for climate change.

WWF UK has said the Prime Minister is now as bad for the climate in some respects as President Bush. This allegation is regarded by independent analysts as preposterous.

Q: So how is Mr Blair going to reach his own manifesto target of a 20% cut in CO2 by 2010?

Officials in the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have drawn up scores of policy options to cut between 11 and 14 million tonnes of carbon.

Motorists will soon be driving on 5% plant-based fuels as part of an EU directive. This has been welcomed by motoring groups but some environmentalists fear it could further increase destruction of the world's rainforests which are vital stores of CO2 but are being felled to provide crop fuel (a campaigner in Brazil burned himself to death protesting at fuel alcohol factories in the Brazilian wilderness).

The Chancellor may widen the bands on VED (road tax) in the pre Budget Statement due shortly in order to encourage more efficient vehicles. The Department for Transport is under pressure in Cabinet to reduce transport emissions, which have been increasing.

Aircraft emissions are particularly troublesome. The government is pressing to have them included in the EU emissions trading scheme but some analysts say much stronger action is needed.

Q: What about homes and businesses?

The government is obliged very shortly to go out to consultation on its new CO2 cap on big business and power sector under the EU emissions trading scheme. Ministers have set the upper and lower limits for the cap, and are wrangling about how far to press electricity generators to cut emissions. This is a huge policy lever which results in energy consumers picking up the bill for their pollution, so it is considered intellectually sound.

Two recent studies by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the consultancy Ilex suggested that cuts of around 8% would be needed for industry to contribute proportionally to the 20% target.

Some leading firms will support that target and argue that they need more clarity from government on long-term CO2 objectives so they can plan technology investment. But the CBI argues that business has already made its cuts. It wants to see motorists and householders made more directly accountable for cutting their emissions.

John Prescott will shortly take forward his proposals for improving energy efficiency from homes, but he is under pressure in Cabinet to justify the decision by his junior ministers to water down proposed rules stipulating that any householder planning a home extension would have to ensure that it led to an overall reduction in CO2 through improved insulation.

Q: So when will we know the details of the strategy?

The strategy will probably be published in January but essential details will come out in dribs and drabs. The pre-Budget report may change the differentials in VED (road tax) to encourage cleaner vehicles. It is also likely to offer encouragement to carbon capture and storage - where CO2 from power stations is stored underground. This may prove a rival to nuclear power for filling the "energy gap". Nuclear is very expensive and are certainly not a government shoo-in, as some have suggested.

Details of key decisions on nuclear and renewables will probably not emerge until after the government energy review that's expected next year. Any big spending commitments like, say, major investment in wind power may have to wait until Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review more than a year away.

Q: What about rumours of a plan to make drivers obey the 70mph limit to save CO2?

The Defra list of policy ideas did include improving motorists' fuel efficiency by forcing them to obey the 70mph speed limit. The AA Trust says driving at 80 rather than 70 uses approximately an extra litre of fuel every 20 miles. This idea was quickly sidelined by politicians nervous of the motoring lobby.

One senior government source told me: "The Daily Mail would crucify us." The proposed CO2 savings will now have to be found from other sectors of the economy. Some government insiders are angry that people and businesses will have to take up the slack on CO2 because ministers have no appetite for enforcing the law on speeding.

Q: The Transport Secretary Alistair Darling told the Today Programme that speed limits were set solely on grounds of safety.

Motorways are the safest roads in the UK. Some independent safety experts believe that 70mph is unnecessarily low. When ministers discussed raising the limit to 80mph, it was resisted by police on the grounds that drivers would break the higher limit. It was also strongly resisted by the environment department because it would further increase CO2 emissions from transport. Defra sources confirm that this was a significant factor in keeping the limit at 70mph.

Q: Is the government taking climate seriously enough?

It depends who you ask. Some leading climate scientists fear that the climate may have already been destabilised, possibly catastrophically, by greenhouse gases. The government's chief scientist David King does not consider it politically realistic to reverse greenhouse gas increases for some decades and advises that we will have to adapt to whatever consequences occur.

Certainly to the UK Cabinet a 20% CO2 cut by 2010 looks very ambitious and there is still inevitable wrangling over which department's sector should make the biggest cut.

Some analysts suggest that climate presents such an overriding challenge to politics-as-usual that we need a Cabinet post of energy and climate, possibly based within Number 10.

In the meantime officials and advisers will continue refining Defra's original list of policy options, many of which were considered by other departments to be under-researched and under-tested. Then there is the question of political timing: ministers will not want to introduce measures that might push up energy prices at a time when energy is expensive.

Q: Will the politicians be able to devise politically saleable policies fast enough to make sure we don't suffer catastrophic climate change?

There are so many unknowns in climate science, policy, technology and politics that it is impossible to answer this question.

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