The biggest challenge of our time

The Kyoto treaty makes a step towards reducing greenhouse emissions, but it's far from enough
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It is, on the face of it, perplexing. Here we are, confronting possibly the biggest crisis in human history, and most of us are looking the other way. We swelter in the heatwaves, watch the storms and droughts on our television screens, read the newspaper stories about fracturing ice sheets and snowless mountains. Some of us even lose our houses to flooding. Yet we tend to blame everything but climate change and everyone but ourselves. Global warming, it seems, has yet to get personal.

It is, on the face of it, perplexing. Here we are, confronting possibly the biggest crisis in human history, and most of us are looking the other way. We swelter in the heatwaves, watch the storms and droughts on our television screens, read the newspaper stories about fracturing ice sheets and snowless mountains. Some of us even lose our houses to flooding. Yet we tend to blame everything but climate change and everyone but ourselves. Global warming, it seems, has yet to get personal.

When the definitive history of climate change is written, it may well include a chapter on denial. A new study from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) shows that while people acknowledge the threat posed by climate change, they tend to see it as remote - a problem for the developing world, for future generations, for industry and Government rather than individuals. And though there is much ignorance of the science - more than two-thirds believe the "hole in the ozone layer" is to blame - there is also widespread disingenuousness. Many people know that cars and cheap flights are a key source of rising greenhouse gas emissions but don't want to give up their high-mobility lifestyles. In effect, they "lie" to themselves. "Unwillingness to acknowledge the environmental impacts of their behaviours may lead some of the public to claim non-awareness of the links between certain of their behaviours and climate change," says Andrew Darnton, the study's author.

It doesn't help that "sustainability" is widely viewed as jargon, energy savers as "oddballs" and environmentalists as killjoys - or even "unmasculine". But perhaps the greatest paradox is that such "cognitive dissonance" - the gap between attitudes and actions - appears to be strongest among flood victims. A study in York in 2001 found that residents blamed local government for inadequate flood defences and resented the media spotlight on global warming. Yet nationwide surveys at the same time found 68 per cent of respondents linking the floods to climate change. "It could be concluded," comments Darnton, "that the majority of the public associates extreme weather events with climate change only so long as they do not directly experience them."

Last month, following a report from the communications consultancy Futerra, Defra announced a £12m climate communications initiative aimed at what Margaret Beckett, the secretary of state, called engaging people "close to home". It's a radical strategy with the emphasis on "360-degree" coverage - roadshows or telethons, for example - crystal-clear messages, aspiration rather than fear or guilt and an inspiring, long-term aim. Futerra's term for the latter is "a big, hairy audacious goal" (BHAG), prounounced bee-hag and borrowed from the 1995 business bestseller Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Yet if climate change is in sore need of a BHAG, the history of modern environmentalism also suggests the workings of the crescendo effect, in which progress is cumulative rather than dramatic, building up to a critical mass.

In which case, 2005 may prove a significant year. Politically, it has seen the birth of the first treaty to control greenhouse gas emissions - the Kyoto protocol, which became legally binding to the 141 countries that have signed up to it on February 16. And with Kyoto has come the biggest collective exercise in emissions controls yet - not only the commitment by developed nations under the protocol to a 5.2 per cent cut in 1990 emission levels by 2012, but the linked EU emissions trading system set up in January.

This year also sees Britain chairing the G8 group of leading industrialised nations and also the EU - with Tony Blair pledged to make climate change a priority in both arenas. Last week, ministers at a G20 energy and environment summit in London were presented with a book describing the pace of climate change, illustrated by 10 of the world's top photographers from Magnum Photos. The book, published by The British Council and The Climate Group, and entitled Northsoutheastwest: A 360-degree View Of Climate Change, included a picture of Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain, stripped of its snowy peak for the first time in thousands of years.

Scientifically, 2005 has added a new urgency to the debate, with several studies suggesting things could get much worse much sooner. In January, the International Climate Change Taskforce warned of a "point of no return", 10 years hence, beyond which climate change could accelerate out of control. At a recent conference in Exeter, scientists presented fresh evidence of ice-melt in the polar regions - dramatically increasing the chance that the north Atlantic Gulf Stream could stop flowing, plunging Europe and north America into a mini-Ice Age. A 3C rise in temperature - comfortably within existing forecasts - would lead to a 45 per cent chance of the Gulf Stream failing by the end of the century. Worrying data has emerged about the acidification of the oceans as they absorb more carbon dioxide. And the US space agency NASA has predicted that 2005 will overtake 1998 as the warmest year since records began.

Set against the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent from 1990 levels, which is what it would take to halt global warming, no one is arguing that Kyoto is enough. The US has notoriously refused to sign, developing-country giants like China and India are exempt from emissions cuts and several European countries have huge ground to make up - Spain, for example, is around 40 per cent above its 1990 emissions levels. Most people see it as a first step, with the attention increasingly centring on what happens after 2012 and whether the US will join the process.

Is Britain doing enough? Internationally, it is among the best performers - 14 per cent below its 1990 emissions levels in 2002, when it was second only to Germany among the top Western industrial nations. The Government has set ambitious targets for future reductions - 20 per cent by 2010 and 60 per cent by 2050 in addition to its above-norm Kyoto target of 12.5 per cent by 2012 - and has introduced a raft of measures and institutions to achieve this. They include the climate change levy on businesses, the obligation on electricity companies to increase supplies of renewable energy and the Energy Saving Trust, which gives householders grants to save energy. It has also committed itself to regular revisions of building regulations aimed at raising the average energy efficiency of homes by a fifth by 2010 compared to 2000.

Environmental groups are less enthused. The emissions cuts were aided by the switch from coal to natural gas - emissions levels have actually changed little since Labour came to power. And progress on the 20 per cent target for 2010 has stalled - temporarily, the Government argues. Last November, Greenpeace, which had hitherto endorsed the Government's climate change policies, changed its mind: it now accuses Mr Blair of "losing his credibility" on the issue. All eyes will be on the Government's review of its climate change programme - due in the summer - which aims to ensure that its targets are met.

One bone of contention is travel, both road and air, where any rises in fuel efficiency are likely to be drowned out by the sheer increase in volume. On cars there is a prospect of real gains in fuel efficiency. For aviation, fuel efficiency gains arising from fleet replacement and technology improvements will continue to make a contribution to reducing CO2 emissions. Research targets agreed by the Advisory Council for Aeronautical Research in Europe suggest that a 50 per cent reduction in CO2 production by 2020 can be achieved, relative to 2000, which compares well with other sectors. By 2030, emissions from aviation could amount to about a quarter of the UK's total contribution to global warming.

For the Government, the way forward is to bring aviation into the European emissions trading scheme as a stepping stone to a wider international agreement to cap aviation emissions - which will mean if we want to go on flying, airlines will have to buy allowances from other sectors. We can expect to hear more about this when the UK holds the Presidency of the EU in the second half of this year. And two weeks ago the government announced that it would take measures from next year to offset the carbon impact of its flying. That could be the start of a move for people to begin to bear the real costs of their love of flying. But it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to convince the woman who was asked by researchers if she would consider stopping flying to help combat global warming. "I think you have to be slightly more realistic," she replied, "in what you suggest we do."

Home help: How to make a difference

Can conscientious individuals help to counter climate change? The answer is a resounding yes, according to Philip Sellwood, chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust (EST). The problem is a lot of people haven't woken up to this fact.

"Sometimes when we say to people that they can help by switching their TV off standby or walking to work, they answer that such measures must surely be irrelevant compared to what George Bush or Tony Blair could do. But, as we point out in our current ad campaign, households are responsible for around 30 per cent of UK energy use and there are lots of things people can do to make a difference. It's often simple things like turning lights off and only filling the kettle with as much water as you need."

Every household in the UK, he points out, creates around six tonnes of carbon dioxide every year - enough to fill six hot air balloons. In fact, the average home emits more harmful carbon dioxide gas, a factor in climate change, than the average car each year.

If we don't all start reducing the amount of energy we consume in our homes, EST calculates upwards of £200bn-worth of damage to our homes and buildings due to flooding and coastal erosion - some of the consequences of climate change. The national dish of fish and chips could be under threat and other national treasures such as daffodils, bluebells and Christmas trees could be lost due to warmer winters.

"We could be in a situation where we're not only jeopardising future generations, but also seeing the impact in our own lifetimes," says Sellwood.

Other benefits from taking immediate action - things like changing light bulbs to the energy-efficient variety and turning down the heating down a notch - include saving an average of £200 a year on energy bills. With suppliers such as British Gas and Npower introducing price hikes of more than 10 per cent, keeping down heating bills is vital.

Other simple measures include buying draught excluders for doors, letterboxes and windows and drawing the curtains to conserve heat when it gets dark, being careful not to drape them over radiators which causes the heat to disappear through the windows.

You can even add to the value of your home by taking longer-term steps like installing double glazing, energy efficient boilers and cavity wall insulation. If every household in the UK installed cavity wall insulation (where possible), it would save £670m a year - or enough energy for 1.8 million homes.

Such decisions obviously require a little more effort and can be expensive but help is at hand, says Sellwood. "For example, cavity wall insulation costs around £300 but grants are available. You could save up to £100 a year on energy bills because uninsulated walls often account for up to a third of heat loss from our homes."

Taking major steps, such as installing a solar panel on your roof, tend to pay themselves back in about 15 years, according to Juliet Davenport, chief executive for green electricity company Good Energy. Although solar panels are costly - around £10,000 upwards - government grants are available that can cover half this cost.

Although it won't necessarily save you money, recycling is another significant way of countering climate change. The Energy Saving Trust has calculated that recycling just one plastic bottle saves enough energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for six hours. For those who want to do more than fill their kerbside collection boxes, options include setting up a compost heap in your garden and taking old and unwanted clothes to a clothing bank or charity shop.

To do your bit outside the home, try car-sharing, switching off your car engine when you're not moving and cutting out one car journey a week.

Kate Hilpern

Energy saving tips

The Energy Saving Trust offers the following advice on saving energy in the home

*Only boil the amount of water you need to make a cup of tea. If everyone did this, we could save enough electricity in a year to run more than three quarters of the street lighting in the country.

*Replace one traditional light bulb with an energy efficient one. Costing from just £5, energy efficient lightbulbs last 12 times longer and for each bulb, you can save up to £7 on your annual electricity bill.

*Stop draughts and escaping heat. Fill gaps under skirting boards with newspaper, beading or mastic sealant and shave £5-£10 off your energy bills every year.

*Check if your home has cavity walls. Around 33 per cent of the heat lost in your home is through the walls, so insulating them can be the most cost-effective way to save energy.

*If your boiler is more than 15 years old it will probably need to be replaced soon. Condensing boilers are the most energy efficient and save you around a third on your heating bills - even more if you upgrade to modern controls.

*Look out for the Energy Efficiency Recommended Logo when you're buying new electrical appliances. The logo appears on products from lightbulbs to laundry appliances.

*Swap the car keys for your walking shoes and stroll to the local shops to buy the paper instead of driving. Apart from being good exercise, it saves petrol and reduces pollution.

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