Emissions: It's time to go on a low-carbon diet

The G8 summit is due to release its final communiqué on climate change today, but unless it recommends rationing carbon emissions, argues Mayer Hillman, it's not worth the paper it's written on

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Last summer, substantial extracts from the newly published book How We Can Save the Planet (Penguin Books), which I wrote with Tina Fawcett, were featured inThe Independent Review. All that has happened since then reinforces its emphatic conclusions.

Current fossil fuel-based lifestyles must be drastically changed to limit the harsher impacts of climate change. A blind eye is being collectively turned to the gross insufficiency of action being taken. The only policy that can prevent the relatively "safe" concentration of carbon emissions accumulating into the atmosphere from being exceeded is the Contraction & Convergence programme proposed by the Global Commons Institute, which aims to lessen emissions at the same time as working towards an equal per capita ration for the world's population. Rationing will have to be mandatory - reduction of CO 2 emissions on this scale cannot realistically be achieved on a voluntary basis.

Yet the public is in denial. We delude ourselves that our current energy profligacy - let alone its spread, as reflected in the continuing rise in road, rail and air travel - does not have to stop. Ask anyone what they intend to do in retirement, and the great majority will say "see the world". Ask anyone whether they think government will be prepared to curtail choice to that end, and they will say "no", glibly and outrageously implying that we are too selfish to save the planet.

Most of the green lobby plays along, with campaigns clearly designed to avoid alarming the public too much. The current Friends of the Earth campaign, "The Big Ask", calls for an annual 3 per cent reduction in CO 2 emissions without indicating that, for it to be in any way meaningful, the reduction has to be set within a global context. Moreover, at that rate, the target of emissions reduction that it agrees to be essential would be reached far too late to avoid catastrophe.

The media, while featuring alarming evidence of climate change, brazenly promotes fuel-intensive attractions, such as second homes overseas, the Olympics (in any city), international tourism and gas-guzzling cars. Industry continues to act as if investment in energy-efficiency programmes, the development of a hydrogen-based economy, carbon sequestration and a renaissance in nuclear power will deliver sufficiently reduced emissions.

Meanwhile, the Government wilfully continues to hold to the view that economic growth and protection of the environment are reconcilable objectives when it is clear that this growth is too closely coupled to greenhouse gas emissions for this to be possible. It has yet to acknowledge the seriously disturbing inadequacy of its target of a 60 per cent reduction in CO 2 emissions by 2050, which falls far short of what the consensus of climate scientists, including its own expert advisers, has established to be essential.

Against this highly disturbing backcloth, only one solution appears to be viable: Contraction & Convergence. Support for it is growing rapidly - all the main political parties, with the exception of Labour, are behind it (as are the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the General Synod of the Church of England and the House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee).

It cannot be very long, therefore, before the Government admits to the inadequacy of its hope-for-the-best dependence on developments in technology. It must surely recognise that the only realistic policy direction for it to take is C&C, and the early introduction of carbon rationing. The most important benefit is that this will provide a framework for delivering the essential reduction needed - and in an equitable way. There is, too, the issue of social justice with regard to the Third World, and Africa in particular, as transfer payments are made to their carbon emission-thrifty populations.

Moreover, carbon rationing will allow individuals to choose the way that suits them best to reduce their emissions, whether that's through buying into energy-saving measures or through lifestyle changes such as holidaying closer to home. Trading on the carbon "market" will encourage this, as people opting for lower-carbon lifestyles will be rewarded by being able to sell their spare rations, the value of which will rise steadily as the yearly ration is reduced. The process will create an ecologically virtuous circle.

A conference has just been held, jointly sponsored by the UK Energy Research Centre and the Policy Studies Institute, focusing on the policy implications of a low-carbon world for key sectors of the economy. A report on its proceedings will be published later this month.

Since the Second World War, fuel has been readily available at a low cost, primarily because most of the social and environmental consequences of its use have been ignored. The outcome - in the form of a massive increase in mileage by road, rail and, most damagingly, by air - has been geographical spread, lower residential densities, public and commercial facilities being sited where they can only conveniently be reached by car, and ever more far-flung destinations around the world now accessible by flying.

The influence of rationing is difficult to predict, but it will certainly lead to a considerable reduction in the need for new transport infrastructure as the demand for travel lessens. Many of the changes that could be expected as carbon rationing bites, such as more walking and cycling and a greater dependence on organic and locally produced food, are likely to impact positively on our quality of life and public health generally, and thereby lead to a lessening of demand for the NHS. Carbon rationing will also accelerate the process of a much wider reliance on energy-conscious design in new and refurbished buildings.

There can be no denying that high-carbon businesses such as those entailing flying - international conferences and sports, cultural events, overseas holiday-making - will face problems, but, conversely, carbon rationing will create many new opportunities in, for example, domestic tourism, organic and low-energy-input farming, the manufacturing of energy-efficient equipment, the refurbishment of buildings, renewable energy generators, public transport services and so on.

We are at a political watershed. Both government and opposition claim that the policies they admit in private to be essential cannot be adopted in a democratic society without support from the public and the international community. That implies that we have no choice but to go down the road to ecological Armageddon with our eyes wide open unless the public can be won over - all the more reason for the Government to embark on a crash education programme on the horrendous consequences of continuing with our energy-profligate lifestyles. Without resolute action, we will be handing over a dying planet to the next generation.

Dr Mayer Hillman is Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute

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