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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
Britain misses the climate bus
By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website

Cyclist and traffic jam.  Image: PA
"International trends" have blocked the road to emissions reductions
So the worst-kept secret in UK climate circles is finally out in the open; as things stand, the government will not meet its cherished target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by the year 2010.

Its review of climate change policy, which includes a small programme of new measures, makes explicit for the first time what many observers have suspected for years.

"The package of existing and new policy measures in the programme are projected to reduce emissions to 15-18% below 1990 levels," it says.

Higher than expected economic growth, together with economic circumstances favouring a switch from gas to coal for generating electricity, are held to blame.

But hope is not abandoned. "This programme is not the final word," it continues, adding that with other measures to be introduced, "the 2010 carbon target is still within reach."

Thus Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett was able to say at the weekend that 20% was still the aim and that it could be achieved, while admitting that so far the policy tools to make the grade are missing.

The once firm target has apparently become a mere aspiration.

Storm in the village

So does it matter? On the political level, clearly it does.

Graph of UK emissions by sector.
British carbon dioxide emissions by source for 2004
Total amounts to 153.0m tonnes (carbon equivalent)
Figures do not include emissions/removals from land use changes and forestry
Keen readers of Westminster runes will find much to mull around their Islington dinner party tables: big business domination of New Labour; reluctance to embrace solutions smacking of statism; another Blair "failure" as Gordon Brown, still wearing the green garlands gleaned on Budget day, looks on.

Having been made first before Labour came to office, the 20% commitment was explicit as recently as last year's general election manifesto.

"We remain committed to achieving a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions on 1990 levels by 2010," it read.

"Our review of progress this summer will show us how to get back on track," the manifesto continued. "A 60% reduction by 2050 remains necessary and achievable."

Clearly, in UK political terms, the review is in part an admission of failure.

Global leadership

In the big world outside the Westminster village, perspectives may be different.

In terms of physical impact on the global climate, it matters not a jot whether UK emissions fall by 20% or 15%.

The key is political leadership. And certainly it is easy to identify a gap between the Prime Minister's oft-quoted concern over climate change - "probably the greatest long-term challenge facing the human race" and "a top priority for this government," as he describes it in the foreword to this review - and the admission of failure on a domestic goal.

But this was no multilateral, quasi-binding target like the 12.5% commitment under the Kyoto Protocol, which Britain is probably going to meet.

Wind turbine.  Image: Getty

Far more important in international terms is Mr Blair's continued flirtation with concepts which exclude Kyoto-style targets.

On the one hand, Britain remains committed to future agreements which, like Kyoto, will oblige countries to cut their emissions by pre-specified amounts.

But on his current visit to Australia Mr Blair has spoken on climate change with his counterpart John Howard, whose government is a leading light in the six-nation Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which aims to develop and distribute "clean" technologies, reducing carbon emissions with no economic pain.

"I think the fact that you've got these initiatives at the moment, all tending in the same direction, is actually a positive sign; it's not a negative one," said Mr Blair in Canberra.

The problem is, these initiatives are not pulling in the same direction.

Australian government research released in January shows the Asia-Pacific pact will at best lead to a doubling of global emissions.

Continued British support for initiatives which by their own admission will increase emissions are likely to have far more impact internationally, politically and physically than failure on the unilateral 20% target.

Measures in place?

Domestically, the irony is that there has never been more support within parliament for strong action on climate change.

An Early Day Motion (EDM) supporting annual emissions cuts of 3% has received 349 signatures.

It is worth running that figure by again; 349. It is more than half the total number of MPs; EDM178 is the best-supported motion in this session of parliament.

The logical conclusion is that if the government wanted to put radical policies through parliament, it would be pushing at an open door.

Aero engine.  Image: AP
Radical actions such as an aviation tax have been rejected
So far Mrs Beckett has steered clear of annual targets.

But if Britain is to get close to its 20% figure, 3% per year is the sort of reduction it is going to have to find.

Three percent per year over the next four yeas would give about 17% by 2010 - not quite there, but close enough to emerge with credibility.

Whether it can find the policy tools to get close - either inside or outside this review - is another matter.

The big one has always been the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), aimed at reducing greenhouse gas production from industry. But the government has yet to decide what the national "cap" on British emissions will be.

"If every household and business took measures to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, by reducing energy used in the home, in buildings, and by changing how journeys are made, we could achieve our 20% target," writes Mr Blair in his foreword.

But emissions from households, buildings and transport are rising.

This review contains some new initiatives aimed at changing that, as did last week's Budget.

We will see more communication, vehicle levy changes, business levy changes, new funds for energy efficiency, support for renewables, and continued engagement with the EU ETS.

More radical options which have been suggested to the government include personal carbon allowances, aviation tax, subsidised distribution of energy-efficient lightbulbs, and congestion charges beyond London's.

The review has had a difficult birth, and has had to fit in with other actions such as last week's Budget and the ongoing energy review, which could yet deliver more climate-friendly initiatives.

Whether or not this all adds up to 15%, let alone 20%, must be open to doubt.


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