Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday published a 'discussion document' on climate change. It sets out merely a series of options on how carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced rather than plans for specific action. The document was a genuine attempt to stimulate national debate, he said, adding: 'We have not made any decisions.'
In sharp contrast, the United States produced a detailed National Action Plan for Global Climate Change earlier this month. It has already ratified the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which President Bush and John Major signed at the Rio Earth Summit in June, whereas Britain's ratification may not take place until the deadline at the end of 1993.
The 129-page American document sets out what the US is doing to combat man-made global warming and how the nation could adapt to rising sea levels, higher temperatures and less rainfall. It claims that more than half the research on the problem is being done in the United States. But America is the world's largest energy producer and consumer. It is therefore also the largest emitter of the various greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide produced when coal, gas and oil are burnt.
Under the convention, Britain is committed to ensuring that carbon dioxide emissions in 2000 are no greater than they were in 1990. Current projections suggest that savings of about 10 million tons of carbon (MtC) will have to be found, as emission would otherwise rise from 160 MtC in 1990 to 170 MtC by the end of the century.
Domestic consumers could be paying an extra pounds 300m a year through their energy bills to promote energy conservation, according to those few indications of the Government's thinking which do emerge from the discussion document. Central to any strategy will be the Energy Saving Trust, a new body set up on the initiative of British Gas and the regional electricity companies to promote energy efficiency.
Chaired by Lord Moore, the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the organisation came into operation on 17 November with a first- year budget of about pounds 6m. This would have to expand to pounds 300m a year under the Government's options, adding 2 to 3 per cent to domestic energy bills. The Government expects that by expanding the work of the Energy Saving Trust, 2 to 3.5 MtC might be saved by 2000.
Increasing demand for fuel for road transport is the main reason for the projected increase in emissions by 2000. In response, it looks likely that petrol prices may rise consistently faster than inflation. The document notes that, 'for example', a 10 per cent increase in real fuel prices by 2000 could lead to a saving of up to 1 MtC. In addition, the department explicitly considers road pricing in towns and cities - originally proposed as a way of reducing congestion - as a measure which might encourage conservation and persuade people away from their cars and on to public transport. Although the Government is not opposed to the principle of a carbon tax, according to Mr Howard, 'we have yet to form a judgement'.
Andrew Warren, director of the Association for Energy Conservation, welcomed the initiative but warned that 'it is vital that completion of this consultation exercise is followed by the swift introduction of new programmes designed to cut energy waste'. He said the document could probably have been written three years ago.
Mr Warren also said that at present it would be possible to meet the target for reduced emissions, adding that 'it would be good for the economy and would create some 50,000 jobs over 10 years, but it will need pump priming and investment'.
Climate Change: Our National Programme for Carbon Dioxide Emissions. A Discussion Document, from the Department of the Environment, PO Box 1150, London N4 1UB.