Leading article: A mountain awaits the Climate Tsar

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The Independent Online

Euphoria is not too strong a word for the feeling in the environmental community last March when the then Environment Secretary, David Miliband, unveiled the Government's Climate Change Bill. After a long campaign led by green groups such as Friends of the Earth, ministers had finally accepted the need to make legally binding the actions necessary to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

The Bill proposes enshrining in law two targets for reducing carbon emissions: a long-term one, of a 60 per cent cut by 2050, and a new and intermediate one, of a 26 to 32 per cent cut by 2020. Alongside the targets, the Government proposed setting up an independent, progress-chasing body, the Climate Change Committee, to be chaired by a powerful figure (who will no doubt become known as the Climate Tsar). The committee's purpose will be to keep the Government firmly on course to meet the binding targets it has set itself.

The law is going to be badly needed. How badly needed became clear yesterday when the think-tank, Cambridge Econometrics – which specialises in the economic modelling of energy and environment trends – forecast that, on current policies, the Government is likely to miss its initial 2020 target by a very wide margin indeed. Instead of a 26 per cent-plus reduction in CO2, it is like to achieve only a 15 per cent reduction – a quite disastrous shortfall.

Cambridge Econometrics needs to be listened to because, in these matters, it has got form. Its analysts correctly forecast that the Government would not meet its own, often-trumpeted target of reducing UK CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by 2010. And it did so in 2004, more than two years before the Government itself admitted the failure, in one of the most embarrassing humiliations of Labour's decade in office.

So, set against the initial euphoria the Climate Change Bill engendered, yesterday's report constitutes a blunt reality check. It shows, first, just how difficult the 2020 target will be to meet, whether it is legally binding or not. One of the difficulties is that steadily rising emissions from the transport and domestic sectors cancel out much of the effect of switching our energy system to decentralised and renewable resources.

It shows, second, that the "Climate Tsar", whose job was advertised only last week, will need to be a truly tough and independent figure. And finally it shows what a mountain Gordon Brown has to climb in putting in place the extra policies that will be required if the target is to be reached. He needs to embark on that task as soon as possible.

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