Bush and Britain worlds apart on climate control

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The Independent Online

One earth; one atmosphere; one future; but yesterday, the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States set out two very different approaches to protecting the world from the threat to us all posed by global warming.

In London, a detailed blueprint demonstrated how we could cut massively the emissions of carbon dioxide from power stations and motor vehicles, which are causing the world's climate to overheat. In Washington, the capital of the country that produces far more of these emissions than any other, a plan was put forward to let them increase.

Not that President George Bush would want the latter proposal to be taken that way, but that will be the undoubted effect of his long-awaited climate change policy, offered up last night almost a year after he withdrew America from participation in the 1997 international treaty to combat global warming, the Kyoto Protocol.

Last March, Mr Bush, the oilman son of an oilman father, kicked Kyoto into touch on the basis that the legally-binding carbon dioxide emissions cuts it required would harm US industry in general, and the energy sector in particular. He echoed the words of ExxonMobil, the world's biggest oil firm (Esso in the UK) and Kyoto's most determined opponents, saying the treaty was "fatally flawed".

Last night, after 11 months of polite disapproval from other governments and opprobium from environmentalists around the world, he offered his alternative ­ and the Dubya answer to climate change turned out to be remarkably similar to the ExxonMobil one, as advocated over recent months.

Its cornerstone is simple: don't do much. The new Bush climate-change policy rules out any idea of binding emissions targets, and relies on American industry to do what it can, voluntarily, with some tax breaks to help it along the way. It does try to limit the future rate of growth of US carbon emissions, which are already a quarter of the world total, from 4 per cent of the world population. But in allowing them to grow alongside economic growth, it will promote an increase in absolute terms.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the US would have had to cut its emissions, by 2010, to 7 per cent below where they were in 1990, which would have meant a real cut, in the 2010 US economy, of 35 per cent. A tough job. But that's what Al Gore, the US Vice-President at the time, agreed in Japan in 1997.

Even if all the Kyoto cuts were implemented ­ including Britain's 12.5 per cent ­ world carbon emissions would drop by about 5 per cent, and this would reduce the expected climate change of up to 6C in the coming century ­ likely to bring famine, flooding and disease on a global scale ­ by a mere one-twentieth of a degree.

UN climate scientists are agreed that what is needed to halt climate change is a giant cut of at least 60 per cent in carbon dioxide, a figure roundly endorsed in June 2000 by Britain's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its own global warming report.

And it is this 60 per cent figure that is the driving force behind the London plan to combat global warming published yesterday. That, compared with the Bush proposals, seems to be referring to a different earth, a different atmosphere, and a different future.

It is a review of energy policy for the British Government from a government think-tank ­ the performance and innovation unit of the Cabinet Office ­ mapping out the rocky road to a true, low-carbon economy. Its basis: that a 60 per cent cut in carbon emissions is something Britain may have to make.

This will not be easy, the review says, but it can be done, if addressing carbon emissions is made the central tenet of Britain's energy policy. In the past, that policy was mainly concerned with security of supply; have we got enough coal and oil? or social justice? Can pensioners afford their gas bills? To make combating climate change its principal objective would be, as the Energy minister, Brian Wilson, acknowledged yesterday, "a historic shift".

The review is advising the Government to adopt big targets for energy efficiency and for electricity from renewables such as wind, wave and solar power, and more research into alternatives to petrol for motor vehicles, such as the hydrogen fuel cell. (It leaves the door open for a continuing role for nuclear power, but does not recommend an increase.)

These are recommendations, not official policy, but the review was warmly welcomed by ministers, and is likely to form the basis of a coming Energy White Paper.

It is a road to the future. The George Bush plan, environmentalists say, is a road to nowhere. The Stop Esso Campaign, a coalition of British green groups which has been fighting what it sees as the perverse influence of ExxonMobil, said: "This isn't a climate policy, it's a polluters' charter. Climate change is one of the most serious issues facing our planet, but Bush and Esso have stuck two fingers up to all of us."

¿ BP is unlikely to continue with plans for a proposed $20bn Alaska pipeline to take gas to the North American market because falling gas prices made it economically unviable, it was reported last night