Calling for a national debate, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Environment Secretary, published the range of policies aimed at limiting the UK's emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and the forecasts of their effects.
His consultation document illustrates how Government itself, companies and individuals, be they motorists or users of electricity in the home, can all reduce emissions now, and how they might do so further in the future. And it reveals that Britain is already well on the way to meeting its international obligation to cut greenhouse gases agreed at the Kyoto climate change conference last December.
Britain's target is to cut its total emissions of six greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide being the principal one - by 12.5 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2010. Yesterday Mr Prescott revealed that Britain is already on target to achieve a 10 per cent reduction by that date.
The main reason is the large-scale replacement in the 1990s of coal-fired power stations by gas-fired plants, which emit much less carbon dioxide. However, after the year 2000 the UK's total emissions will start to grow again and further measures will be needed to meet the target, and especially the Government's private target, set out in its manifesto, to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide alone by 20 per cent by 2010.
The Government now wishes to consult widely on how to achieve this with minimum cost. Mr Prescott said yesterday: "I have a simple rule of thumb. If there's a hard and easy way to achieve the same thing, for God's sake let's choose the easy way. This debate is about gain, not pain."
There were huge opportunities for industry, in job creation as well as energy efficiency, he said. He added: "We are determined to reach our targets, but we will not introduce measures that will significantly damage competitiveness, nor will we take any action that will bring about unacceptable social costs."
The Government's most difficult problem is the transport sector, where carbon dioxide emissions are steadily rising with the growth of road traffic. Its integrated transport strategy, set out in Mr Prescott's recent Transport White Paper, is a key tool here with many proposed measures such as local anti-congestion schemes. But it is believed that Tony Blair is not keen to attack the car user and the proposals may not be included for legislation in the forthcoming Queen's Speech.
Asked about it yesterday, Mr Prescott said: "We cannot say what is in the Queen's Speech until the Queen gives it. I am sure there will be legislative time for all our policies and proposals."
Doing nothing, Mr Prescott said, was not an option. "The science is clear and the evidence is no longer challenged," he said. "1998 looks to be the world's warmest year on record, and this year's El Nino was the worst on record.
"In the future we face more flooding from rising seas, more severe winter gales and storms, and droughts and more heat waves and forest fires in the summer. Our food supplies, our wildlife habitats and human health are all threatened. This is threatening the very quality of life here in Britain and on the planet generally."
The Government is inviting comment from all interested parties, and will produce a formal UK climate change strategy in time for the ratification of the Kyoto treaty (probably after the year 2000).
Tony Juniper, policy and campaigns director for Friends of the Earth, said the document was very positive, but added:"One thing that's missing is road traffic reduction. They can't do their 20 per cent target until they recognise that they have got to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads. At the moment they're just trying to slow down the rate of increase."
There is to be no backsliding on the Celtic fringe. The legally binding Kyoto target is for the UK as a whole, the document points out, but some of the policies needed to deliver it will be the responsibility of the forthcoming Scottish and Welsh assemblies. "The devolution legislation therefore includes powers that could be used, if needed, to ensure that the devolved administrations contribute equitably to the achievement of the UK target."
THIS IS the Government's most difficult problem. The transport sector accounts for 23 per cent of the UK's carbon dioxide emissions, 85 per cent of it from road traffic, and it is continuing to rise steadily.
The Government's main tool so far for getting emissions down is the fuel duty escalator, a commitment to increase the tax on petrol by at least 5 per cent a year above inflation. In the last Budget it went up by 6 per cent. This provides a clear signal to the motor industry to design more efficient vehicles, and to drivers to think about how much they use their cars.
Three other main measures are in the pipeline: the European Union's recent agreement with car manufacturers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new cars by 25 per cent; the package of local anti-congestion measures proposed in the recent Transport White Paper; and stricter enforcement of speed limits. But, emissions are still forecast to grow by 2010.
Other measures that might need to be introduced include variable road tax for smaller car engines and changes to the company car tax regime.
INDUSTRY HAS to deal with carbon dioxide, but also the other five greenhouse gases agreed for reduction at Kyoto, in particular methane, largely produced by rubbish tips, and nitrous oxide, a by-product of many industrial chemical processes. Better management techniques mean emissions of the latter two are expected to decline substantially by 2010. The Government is considering an emissions trading regime - enabling firms to buy and sell "pollution allowances".
GOVERNMENT departments can cut their energy use, as can quangos, agencies, the NHS, local councils and schools. Carbon dioxide created by this sector will grow slightly by 2010, largely due to increased use of electrical appliances and air-conditioning, but methane emissions are expected to fall sharply, perhaps by as much as 40 per cent, through better waste management.
Energy efficiency targets are being developed for government buildings.
EMISSIONS OF carbon dioxide created by energy use in the home are expected to fall by about 12 per cent on their 1990 level by 2010. Much of this will be due to government energy efficiency programmes, which have just been awarded another pounds 174m in funding. A wide range of energy-saving devices and equipment will be encouraged, from cavity wall insulation to compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Simpler measures - such as switching off equipment not in use - will also be promoted.
GREENHOUSE GASES in the countryside are generated bytwo less familiar sources: nitrous oxide from nitrogen-rich fertilisers, and methane from the digestive processes and wastes of animals. With thousands or even millions of animals, this can be in significant amounts.
The Government thinks both emissions will fall by 2010, largely because of more environmentally friendly farming,lower levels of animal stocking and less fertiliser use.
THIS IS the Government's ray of sunshine. Emissions from the energy sector, meaning the production of electricity and of fuels such as oil and coal, have been falling steeply in the 1990s, principally because of the "dash for gas" - the decline of the coal industry under the Tory government and the replacement of many traditional coal-fired power stations with gas-fired plants, which emit much less carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide emissions from power stations fell by more than 20 per cent between 1990 and 1997.This is what will enable the UK to meet its Kyoto target.
But as nuclear power goes off-stream in the next century, the sector will again become more carbon-intensive and new measures will be required. Two are in the pipeline: renewable energy from wind, wave and solar power, and the technology known as combined heat and power (CHP). A Government review is looking at how to deliver 10 per cent of UK electricity demand from renewables by 2010. The Government is also considering increasing the current CHP target.Reuse content