It may be too late to stop the effect of man-made global warming, but we can still slow it down to a tolerably safe rate of change in the next century. But we must start now.
The main solution is to make heavy cuts in our use of coal, oil and gas. Consuming these fossil fuels is the main cause of emissions of planet- warming greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane.
If, overnight, humanity cut its emissions by two-thirds, then the atmospheric concentration of these heat-trapping gases would stabilise at about today's level. This, however, is still 25 per cent above what it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
There is no chance of this happening. Each passing year, the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted is actually rising by some 2 per cent. The main reason for this is that much of the Third World is undergoing an explosive industrialisation, and, like the West's 200-year march to prosperity, it is being driven by the use of cheap, abundant fossil fuels.
China and India, the two most populous developing countries, have vast reserves of coal, the fuel that produces the most carbon dioxide per unit of energy. They are almost certain to burn more and more of it for the next few decades. It is hard to see any other energy source - nuclear or solar power, hydro-electricity, imported oil and gas - being any more economic for them.
Even the West, with its much greater technological and financial resources, shows little sign of breaking its dependence on fossil fuels.
If all governments were to agree first on lowering the rate of increase of emissions, then stabilising them and finally starting to lower them - all within a 40- year time frame - then the risks of catastrophic climate change would be hugely reduced.
The objective would be to stabilise the atmospheric concentrations of these gases within a century. The climate would change, but at a rate at which agriculture, economies and wildlife could adapt to without grave, widespread damage.
This objective is already enshrined in an international treaty. Article 2 of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for ``stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [man-made] interference with the climate system. About 150 countries have since ratified the document. But are they going to achieve this objective?
In the treaty, the 36 developed countries made a weak, non-binding commitment to stabilise their annual emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases between 1990 and 2000. It seems unlikely that many of them will deliver on that, including major emitters such as the United States, Canada and Australia. It would be hard to imagine a worse start to the decades of tough international negotiations on climate that lie ahead. Understandably, the developing world sees this as a blatant injustice. Why should it be expected to start reducing its emissions, to deny itself the benefits of cheap and still abundant fossil fuels, when the main culprits are unwilling to make any sacrifice?
In taking this line, very few Third World leaders have understood a harsh truth - that their nations will be far more at risk from climate change and rising sea levels than the rich countries.
Nations like Britain have the technology and the capital to adapt to the likely changes in temperature, rainfall, winds and sea levels over the next half-century. Some sectors, like agriculture, may be hard hit. There will have to be costly investment in sea defences, perhaps in water resources and some other areas, but the pain and sacrifice will be controlled.
But global warming may well bring colossal destitution, loss of life and refugee movements to the poorest, most densely populated Third World countries, such as Bangladesh.
All countries, rich and poor, have to tackle the problem of controlling rising emissions together. The developed countries have committed themselves to an addition to the climate treaty, known as the Berlin Mandate, and Greenpeace's observers and the UK government's delegation came away from a recent meeting in Geneva with hopes raised that rich nations would agree to make emission reductions from the Millennium.
Getting your house in order
Nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions in Britain are directly under the control of you, the consumer. Every time we switch on a light, fire up the central heating boiler, push down on the car's accelerator pedal or board public transport, more fossil fuel is burnt and more carbon dioxide pumped into the changing atmosphere.
The Independent has estimated that the average family of two adults and two children produces about 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from its personal use of fossil fuels at home and on the move. Of that, about 5.7 tonnes - the biggest single component - comes from heating the home and providing hot water.
The next biggest contribution comes from driving the family car (3.5 tonnes), electricity use (3.3 tonnes), air travel for one annual holiday abroad (1.1 tonnes) and use of public transport - just under half a tonne.
If we care about global warming, then the best thing we can do is set ourselves a target for cutting our use of fossil fuels. Twenty per cent is a reasonable, readily achievable figure for most of us.
There are two excellent additional reasons why we should do this. With the average family's bills associated with this use of energy easily topping pounds 2,000 a year (gas, electricity, petrol, public transport and air fares), the saving would be pounds 400 a year. Second, fossil fuel use causes other serious environmental problems - city smog and acid rain.
If you already have loft insulation, make it thicker. If you have double glazing, consider triple. Get cavity wall insulation. If your boiler is 10 years old or more, buy a gas-condensing boiler - it costs considerably more than the conventional type but uses far less fuel.
Get a car with very high fuel efficiency and make the most of it - don't accelerate sharply or drive above 70mph. Don't use the car for short journeys; walk or cycle. For longer journeys, switch to public transport whenever you can - apart from the taxi, it invariably produces less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than the private car.
A starting point is to ring 0800 512012. This freephone number puts you in touch with one of the Energy Saving Trust's 32 local energy advice centres. The trust's main number is 0171-931 8401.
Decline of coal has helped Britain to reduce emissions
Britainhasoneofthe finestrecordsinthe world in controlling its carbon dioxide emissions, the mostimportantclimate-changing`greenhouse'gas. Butthisenviableposition comesaboutmainlyby accident.
The UK looks set to keep its treaty promise of stabilising annual emissions of the gas at the 1990 level by the year 2000. And Britain, along with Germany, is a world leader in offering firm and significant cuts in emissions post-2000.
Why? Because of the rapid rundown of the UK coal industry. Coal is the fossil fuel which produces most carbon dioxide per unit of useful energy. We burn less of it with each passing year because the privatised electricity generation and supply industry have made a ``dash for gas'', building more efficient and cleaner gas-fired power stations.
Another reason is that an increasing proportion of our electricity comes from nuclear stations, which produce negligible level of greenhouse gas. Suffolk's giant Sizewell B station recently came on stream.
The Government has implementedpoliciestoreduce energy wastage and control emissions. Imposing VAT at 8 per cent on household gas and electricity, and annually raising the duty on road fuels by 5 per cent above the rate of inflation should encourage thrift.
There is a Home Energy EfficiencyScheme(HEES), which gives grants for draught-proofing and insulation in homes with low incomes. The Government is encouraging the spread of pollution-free, renewable energy sources and has set up an Energy Saving Trust, which was intending to impose a small levy on energy consumers to fund a wide range of energy-saving schemes.
But several of these policies have run into trouble. Most of the trust's schemes have been scuppered by the gas-industry regulator, which decided the levy was illegal. And the scope of HEES was cut in last November's Budget.
The Government's original plan was to impose VAT on energy at 15 per cent, but that proved politically impossible. Only last week, a House of Commons amendment - which would have lowered VAT on energy-saving goods such as insulation and triple glazing to 8 per cent, putting it on a level with fuel - was lost by one vote.
Environmentalists say the Government could do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without damaging the economy. Income from heavier taxes on fossil fuels could be used to cut income tax and National Insurance, and increase benefits for the poor.
TheGovernmentitself shows signs of schizophrenia. While the Department of the Environment spends money on advertising the need to save both energy and the earth, the Department of Trade and Industry's frequent boast is that electricity and gas have never been cheaper, thanks to privatisation.Reuse content