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UK aims greener and greener

The UK considers itself as a leader in the fight against climate change. A raft of new plans might put substance behind the boast. Derek Brower reports

TARGETS and more targets. Western governments have been accused for years now of talking a lot of hot air when they tell the world how they will deal with hot air. Last month's G8 summit did not even manage a theoretical ambition for emissions reductions. The leaders of the world's richest nations declared that they "recognise the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C." There were no concrete proposals to accompany the words.

As some commentators noted, next they will be commanding the waves to go back. Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), liked the sentiment, but chided the G8 for ignoring the IPCC's recommendations on how to achieve that "aspiration".

But as the clock ticks down towards the Copenhagen climate summit in December, some Western countries are beginning to look almost radical in their approach to climate change. Taking steps unilaterally may, ultimately, be self-defeating. But maybe, just maybe, some of them are serious about fighting climate change.

US President Barack Obama led the way within weeks of taking office earlier this year, putting green energy at the heart of a huge stimulus package to create jobs for his country. And now the UK is following suit. Last month, it unveiled its "Low Carbon Transition Plan", a programme, in the words of its promulgators, that will transform the country into a "cleaner, greener and more prosperous place to live". There are crunchier headline targets that underpin that vague ambition (see box p20).

The plan will help the UK meet its target, announced at the most recent statement of the government's financial plan, of reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by 34% on 1990 levels by 2020, and by 18% compared with 2008. It will also, claims the government, put 1.2 million people into "green jobs", give "house make-overs" to more than 7 million homes, enable another 1.5 million houses to produce their own renewable electricity, source 40% of electricity from low-carbon sources, and so on. All by 2020. It is, says the government, the "most systematic response to climate change of any large developed economy".

Setting the standard

The plan also "sets the standard for others in the run up to crucial global climate talks in Copenhagen". That is useful, because Western nations, including climate-change convert the US, are expected to face opposition from developing economies when the diplomats gather in the Danish capital to negotiate a treaty to replace Kyoto. It was not the Western countries that backed away from specific measures at the G8 summit, but China and India that derailed the pact. It would have called for a 50% cut in GHGs by 2050. Western leaders had even offered to shoulder 80% of that reduction.

Offering evidence that Western countries are taking big steps to mitigate climate change should put some meat into their argument in Copenhagen. With any luck, it could help to dispel worries in developing nations that the climate-change fight is, in reality, just another attempt by already-rich Westerners to stunt economic growth in the poorer parts of the world.

If specifics are needed, the UK's plan has them in spades. The raft of documents published alongside the broad transition plan – such as Low Carbon Transport: A Greener Future and The UK Renewable Energy Plan – weigh in at several hundred pages. The Department of Energy and Climate Change might be new and its minister, Ed Miliband, new to government, but they have been busy since receiving their brief from prime minister Gordon Brown last year.

There is a hint of "adaptation" in the transition plan. That's the term climate-change specialists have given to the measures necessary to prepare people for a different climate. The plan acknowledges, rather fatefully, that "whatever is done to reduce emissions in the future, past emissions mean some climate change is already inevitable". Spending on flood prevention and medical facilities to deal with heat waves is already rising.

There is also a careful message from Miliband that lays out other reasons to justify the programme. One is security of supply. "As our own [oil and gas] reserves in the North Sea decline, we have a choice: replace them with ever-increasing imports, be subject to price fluctuations and disturbances in the world market and stick with high carbon; or make the necessary transition to low carbon, right for climate change, energy security and jobs." The transition will also give the UK a lead over other countries in developing clean-energy industries, he argues. "In demonstrating the technology to capture carbon dioxide and lock it away, for example, we can lay the pipes and the infrastructure for new, sustainable industrial hubs, and we gain the engineering knowledge to win contracts installing it in other countries."

There is some bad news for consumers buried in the plan. Average annual household electricity bills will rise by £77 ($127) and gas bills by £172 to help pay for an estimated £100bn that companies will spend to meet the government's target of supplying 30% of power from renewable energy by 2020, compared with just 5.5% now. Another £250 a year in 2020 might seem small beer to stop your house from being flooded – or to prevent Bangladesh from disappearing – but such cost increases are good fodder for the government's many opponents.

One criticism that cannot easily be levelled, however, is a lack of detail in the proposals. (If your printer can handle it, all the documents can be downloaded from the department's website). The plan allocates a "carbon budget" to each governmental department, for example, and lists several initiatives to green the transport sector, including funding to encourage buying of more efficient cars and money for "electric-car cities" across the country. The broader targets are refreshingly specific, too. Of the carbon cuts to be made, the plan says half will come from the power sector, 20% from the travel sector, 15% from upgrading homes, 10% from doing the same to workplaces and 5% from agriculture.

The responsibility of the power sector, which accounts for 35% of the country's emissions, is obvious, especially as the UK still draws on coal for a about 30% of its electricity. Transport accounts for 21% of the UK's emissions, so is also an obvious target. Yet how the proposals for that sector square with the government's sanctioning of a new runway at Heathrow, London's biggest airport, is unclear. Miliband dropped himself into a bit of hot water last month, moreover, when he claimed carbon taxes to make flying more costly would preserve air travel for the rich. Britons like to leave their island by plane, so imposing extra costs on doing so would not be popular. But cheap air travel seems the kind of luxury the government's green tsar might otherwise consider anomalous while he tackles the "moral challenge" of climate change.

Some of his plan's proposals are old. The programme will facilitate a new generation of nuclear power stations, it says. But that was announced several years ago and made its way through a bruising and lengthy consultation process last year. The claim that the UK has already cut 21% of its emissions since 1990 is also debatable, given that it accounts for none of the emissions arising from imported goods or businesses outsourced in recent years to Asia.

Environmental groups were broadly in favour of the plan, although some said that despite being comprehensive in its description of the strategy to 2020, the plan had not addressed the longer-term need to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. That goal was set last year in the government's Climate Change Act – ground-breaking in itself, as it set a legally binding target, and evidently a test for the department that is charged with ensuring the country meet it. The government says a roadmap for 2020-50 will be published by spring 2010.

Tinkering around the edges

Greenpeace, an environmental pressure group, applauded the boost to renewables, while noting that the pledge to put £120m towards offshore wind and £60m for marine energy was not huge. (The government will spend more to persuade people to cycle more frequently than it will on wind power.) It was more critical of other aspects, however. Incentives for more efficient and electric cars were "tinkering around the edges", for example. And many environmentalists doubt carbon-capture technologies will ever see the light of day – or solve coal's big pollution problem. Yet the government retains great faith in that technology.

If the government is serious about making its plan real, there will be more than edges tinkered with. The transition plan is the boldest of any proposed by a large economy – and with Copenhagen coming up it should give the UK the leader's role it craves in international affairs. Whether the plan itself lasts longer than a few months remains to be seen, however. The Labour government seems destined to lose an election that must be held at some point in the next year. It would be a shame if its low-carbon plans fell with it.

 

 UK's green goals and targets*
  • Cut emissions by 18% – 1.4% reduction a year
  • 40% of all electricity to be sourced from "low carbon" sources
  • 30% of electricity to come from renewables
  • Fund up to four demonstrations of CCS from coal power stations
  • Facilitate the building of new nuclear power stations by 2025 by streamlining approvals
  • £120m investment in offshore wind
  • £60m for marine energy
  • Smart meters in every home
  • 40% reduction in CO2 emissions from cars (against 2007 levels), part of EU-wide programme
  • 10% of all transport to fuelled by renewable sources
  • £3.2bn to make homes more efficient
  • Cut emissions from power and heavy industry together by 22%
  • Cut emissions from homes by 29%
  • From 2016 all new homes to be "zero-carbon"
  • Cut natural gas demand by 27%
  • Cut dependence on imported gas in 2020 from 60% to 45%
  • Cut emissions from workplaces by 13%
  • Cut emissions from transport by 14%
  • Cut emissions from farming and waste by 6%
  • 8% rise in household energy bills

*To 2020, unless stated; emissions-reduction targets against 2008 levels, unless stated


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