Environment: Blair sticks to pledge to curb carbon dioxide emissions

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister stuck to one of his party's most challenging, awkward and potentially unpopular manifesto commitments in his conference speech yesterday - that Britain will cut its emissions of climate-changing carbon dioxide gas by 20 per cent by 2010 to help save the Earth's climate from catastrophic change.

If he means it, that implies big changes in our lives at work, at play and at home. We will certainly have to burn much less of the fossil fuels whose combustion produces the global warming pollutants.

We will either have to travel less, or use much more fuel-efficient cars or much more public transport. Our homes will have to be altered to conserve more warmth, coal mining will decline further, wind farms will continue to expand.

At present, the Government has no policies in place which will deliver anything like these changes. Indeed, the trends are pointing in the wrong direction. The real, inflation-adjusted prices of gas, heating oil and electricity is cheap compared to the averages over the past quarter century, and getting cheaper. Even petrol, despite being taxed more and more heavily, is not expensive compared to its price during previous post-war oil crises.

Consumption of energy is rising even faster than economic growth. People show no signs of using their cars less and switching to public transport, which produces less carbon dioxide per person moved.

Britain had to take the necessary action to curb emissions ``and get the rest of the world to take that action too,'' he said, referring to the crucial international negotiating meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in December.

And that was it - just two sentences, no specifics and no new policies, despite Labour spin-doctors ensuring this green fragment of his speech got extensive advance publicity.

``We're very disappointed at what was a wasted opportunity,'' said Tony Juniper, campaigns director with Friends of the Earth. ``It's all very well him saying he is passionate about this issue, but what is actually going to happen?''

What is happening is that John Prescott's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is negotiating with other key departments, particularly the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, over options on how the 20 per cent emissions cut can be achieved.

The Treasury is resisting the idea of new energy taxes. Raising the cost of home heating is a no-go area for the Labour Party after the recent VAT cut - even though it is hard to see how any government can be serious about curbing fossil fuel without raising energy prices for ordinary consumers.

And the DTI is worried that new fuel taxes aimed at industry, or other curbs on fossil fuel use, may harm important British companies which produce and distribute energy, like North Sea Oil, or those like chemicals which use large quantities of fuel.

So it is hard pounding for Mr Prescott's team. The objective is to present the Cabinet with an agreed menu of options needed to deliver the 20 per cent cut just before the Kyoto summit. The Government will then know the scale of changes required if it is to deliver that target, but will have no detailed programme for hitting it.

In Japan, the Deputy Prime Minister will negotiate for the maximum possible cuts on the part of developed countries. The only other major industrialised nation willing to pledge cuts on such a deep scale is Germany, while the European Union as a whole is offering 10 to 15 per cent.

In the United States, the world's biggest user of fossil fuels, the Clinton administration has begun a belated but heavyweight campaign to make voters and industry take the threat of climate change seriously. But US energy companies have been banging home the message that curbs in oil, gas and coal consumption are a threat to the American way of life.

Will Mr Blair's two sentences make much difference? And if the other rich countries agree on only meagre action, or no action at all, will Britain stay out on a limb offering a drastic 20 per cent cut in emissions? Yesterday no one in government, from Mr Blair downwards, was offering any cast-iron guarantee that it would.