The fall will raise questions about Norman Lamont's justification for raising VAT on domestic fuel from zero to 17.5 per cent over the next two years. The Chancellor of the Exchequer told the House of Commons on Budget Day that the tax was needed to curb energy consumption and tackle the threat of global warming.
Britain is committed, under last year's climate change treaty, to stabilise annual emissions of CO2 at their 1990 level by 2000. Last year's drop, due mainly to the recession, mild weather and a switch from coal-fired to nuclear electricity, shows there is a chance that Britain could hit the target by accident without bringing in any new policies or taxes.
In 1990, emissions stood at 160 million tons and they rose marginally to 161 million in 1991, according to government estimates. These are the most recent Whitehall figures, but it is possible to estimate how much CO2 was produced last year from fossil fuel consumption figures, which are kept much more up-to-date. Almost all of the CO2 that is emitted is produced as a result of burning coal, oil and gas.
Last year, emissions fell to 156 million tons, well below the stabilisation target. Government experts project that if energy prices are high and economic growth is low through the 1990s then emissions will have fallen substantially by 2000. But if energy prices remain low and economic growth is high then the projection is for a 12 per cent increase in emissions by the end of the century - unless new policies are introduced in order to meet Britain's treaty commitment.
Environment experts pointed out that the target for advanced industrial nations to stabilise emissions by 2000 was only agreed because it was reasonably easy to achieve.
Stewart Boyle, Greenpeace's energy director, said: 'It's an extremely modest target. If we are going to avoid fundamentally altering climate while coping with the needs of the Third World then countries like Britain are eventually going to have to curb their emissions by 80 per cent or more.'
He and Andrew Warren, director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, warned that if the economy revived then energy consumption could start to rise again rapidly, overwhelming last year's fall in CO2 emissions within a couple of years. 'The fall is largely due to nuclear electricity (which produces very little CO2 ) being ring-fenced and given a guaranteed market while coal declines,' Mr Warren said.
'We should not be complacent. It shows how much more we could do to address the threat of climate change if we were really serious about saving energy.'
(Graph omitted)Reuse content