Letter: Now is the time to cut fossil fuels

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The Independent Online
Now is the time to cut fossil fuels

Sir: It is welcome that the new government has determined to "put concern for the environment at the heart of policy making, so that it is not an add-on extra, but informs the whole of government, from housing and energy policy through to global warming and international agreements", and that it is to be a central aim of foreign policy for Britain to give leadership on environmental matters.

In one month's time, world leaders will meet to discuss the environment for the first time since the Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit" of 1992. From 23 to 27 June Tony Blair and other leaders will gather in New York for an environmental special session of the UN General Assembly, to review Rio's progress and plan action into the next century.

Five years ago in Rio, Britain signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since 1995, climate change has been deemed "discernible" by scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Britain's current drought focuses minds on what the future may hold.

At the "climate summit" in Kyoto this December, the immediate priority will be to achieve legally binding reduction targets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The UK government is relatively progressive, with its domestic target of a 20 per cent cut by 2010 on 1990 levels, although we all believe this should be achieved by 2005 at the latest to have a significant impact.

The objective of the Climate Convention is to constrain climate change to rates and limits allowing "ecosystems to adapt naturally". Scientists advising the UN have proposed criteria for a lower, safer limit, which include a maximum 1 degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels and an higher, less safe limit of 2 degrees.

Governments should now use these limits to plan the future permissible global use of fossil fuels. Such a task is long overdue because the existing reserves of fossil fuels - such as oil, coal and gas - will, when burnt, produce at least twice as much carbon dioxide as even the upper limit can tolerate. A negotiated "carbon budget" is required, and reliance on fossil fuels must be phased out in an orderly way.

Industrial nations cannot credibly continue to expand production and use of fossil fuels - the principal source of climate-changing pollution - and at the same time advocate reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. Energy prices should also reflect the environmental cost of energy production and use, through instruments such as carbon and energy taxes. Efficiency and renewables must receive the incentives they require to succeed.

The timescale to complete such action will be a number of decades but a start must be made now, taking advantage of the political opportunities of 1997.


Deputy Executive Director, Greenpeace UK


Director, Friends of the Earth England, Wales, Northern Ireland


Chief Executive, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds


Director, WWF-UK


Director General, The Wildlife Trusts


Director, FoE Scotland

London N1