Global warming: Your chance to change the climate

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Four senior ministers today made one of the most embarrassing admissions of the Labour Government's nine years in office - that the official policy for fighting climate change has failed.

Yet, as they did so, a group of MPs will offer a different way forward in the struggle to combat global warming, one which they think is the only alternative. It will mean turning established principles of British economic life upside down. It will mean sacrifices from everyone. Therefore, they say, it will have to be taken out of politics.

In The Independent today, their leader, Colin Challen, the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, sets out the case for abandoning the "business as usual" pursuit of economic growth, which has been the basis of Western economic policy for two hundred years. Instead, he says, we must concentrate our efforts on putting a limit on the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO 2) from power stations and motor vehicles that are causing the atmosphere to warm.

To do this, Mr Challen and his colleagues believe, carbon will have to be rationed, for companies, individuals and, eventually, for countries. And only a full cross-party consensus would allow such a departure to be implemented without being destroyed by the political process.

Today, the group announces a climate change inquiry, inviting evidence from any interested parties, and readers of The Independent are invited to join in the debate. We will forward your responses to the committee.

The idea represents a radical rethink. Today the case for it will be dramatically illustrated as the Government admits that its Climate Change Programme Review, on which it has spent more than a year, will not deliver its key global warming target ­ to cut CO 2 emissions to 20 per cent less than 1990 levels by 2010.

This has been Labour's flagship green policy for more than a decade and the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, the Trade and Industry Secretary, Alan Johnson, the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, and the minister of Communities and Local Government, David Milliband, will explain why the target still seems elusive.

There have been arguments between Mrs Beckett's department, which led the Review, and the DTI, over restrictions on industry to cut back on CO 2. Mrs Beckett said at the weekend that the Government was "certainly not abandoning that target" and the review would "move us very much in the right direction".

But, she added: "We did postpone publishing the review because we hoped we could draw the strands together, but it just hasn't been possible to do that."

Yet the failure holds no mysteries for Mr Challen, the Labour MP for Morley and Rothwell. He points out that the Government's policies, which are well-meant, are indeed lowering the carbon intensity of the economy. But the phenomenon of economic growth means that there are more and more plants, and the cuts are swamped by the growth. It is that growth which must be addressed.

"No amount of economic growth is going to pay for the cost of the damage caused by a new and unstable climate," he said.

He says that the pursuit of growth, which essentially has not changed since Victorian times, is misleading, and the terms need to be redefined. Instead, we need a different policy which looks at how much carbon we can afford to emit. Some scientists think we should stabilise global atmospheric CO 2 concentrations at between 450-550 parts per million to avoid dangerous climate change. Concentrations currently stand at just more than 380ppm, but are rising all the time.

"Domestically, we will need to introduce carbon rationing," he said. "Individuals would get an allowance each year, which would gradually come down."

Internationally, he would like the system, formalised in the policy known as Contraction and Convergence, developed by Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute. That would cut emissions of carbon-rich countries, while allowing those ofcarbon-poor countries to rise, until everyone has the same quota.

Mr Challen says the approach needs to be based on "actuality" ­ just how much carbon can we afford to emit before climate change brings us disaster? But such moves would require sacrifice on the part of individuals, so a cross-party consensus is essential to obviate the pursuit of short-term political advantage.

The beginnings of such a consensus have been outlined, with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and minority parties now willing to work together.

But Mr Challen and his colleagues are looking for something more fundamental that would take in the radical new way forward. "We have to create the political space to address it," he said.

In his evidence to the committee's forthcoming inquiry, Mr Challen will propose the formation of a cross-party commission to look at climate change policies.

PROMISES KEPT AND PROMISES BROKEN

Global warming

THEY PROMISED: "We will lead the fight against global warming, through our target of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2010."

WHAT HAPPENED: Carbon emissions are 3 per cent higher than they were in 1997.

VERDICT: Promise not kept

International agreements

THEY PROMISED: "We will push environmental concerns higher up the international agenda."

WHAT HAPPENED: Global warming was a major feature of last year's G8 summit, hosted by Tony Blair, and the UK is on course to keep targets set at the Kyoto summit in 1997.

VERDICT: Promise kept

Transport

THEY PROMISED: "An effective and integrated transport policy."

WHAT HAPPENED: Traffic has gone up 11 per cent since 1997 while it became 11 per cent more expensive to travel by bus, and rail journeys went up 4 per cent.

VERDICT: Promise broken

Green taxes

THEY PROMISED: "Just as work should be encouraged through the tax system, environmental pollution should be discouraged."

WHAT HAPPENED: Fuel duty, climate change levy, landfill tax etc. rose to 3.6 per cent of national income in 1999 and 2000. Then Gordon Brown froze fuel duty and road tax, and froze the climate change levy.

VERDICT: Promise not kept

Nuclear power

THEY PROMISED: "We see no economic case for the building of new nuclear power stations."

WHAT HAPPENED: Tony Blair ordered a review of energy policy last autumn, which is likely to conclude that new nuclear power stations are needed.

VERDICT: Promise soon to be broken

HAVE YOUR SAY

Make your contribution to a national debate on climate change. Are governments doing enough? Are businesses playing their part? How can we take party politics out of the discussion?

'Independent' readers are invited to send submissions to the all-party inquiry on climate change, which will then seek a response from ministers. Send your contribution to: Climate change debate, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or by e-mail from this morning to: climatechange@independent.co.uk

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