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United Kingdom

Politicians polish halo at London meeting

The political consensus for tough action on greenhouse gas reduction means the issue is not getting the press attention it deserves, say British politicians at a conference in London on climate change, even though they feel the country is leading the way in the fight against global warming.

Meeting the UK's stiff target for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions will be good for the economy and good for Britain's competitiveness, government ministers were told at a conference in London on climate change. Indeed, many speakers reinforced the message that whatever the outcome of the United Nations climate change summit in Kyoto, the UK must stick to its domestic goal of a 20% reduction in CO2 from 1990 levels by 2010. The consensus was that this target -- described by environment minister Michael Meacher as the most ambitious in Europe, and indeed, the world -- places Britain in a prime position to lead the international fight against global warming.

The conference -- held November 12 -- was called by the cross-party Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) just a few weeks before the meeting of the world's nations in Kyoto this month to negotiate reductions in greenhouse gases. It focused on government preparations for the Kyoto meeting and ways the country can deliver on its own target.

A clear sense of purpose and a determination to press strongly in the international arena for tough targets was shared by government and opposition speakers alike. Former environment Secretary of State John Gummer stressed that the Conservatives endorsed the government's aims for cutting greenhouse gases. Yet therein lies a peculiarly British problem. Consensus between political parties is of little interest to the UK media which does not give the subject the coverage it deserves, he pointed out. "The fact that this issue is not a political dogfight means that it slips from view." Britain could learn from other EU countries where the issue is seen to be all the more important for not being politically divisive, he said. "Of course, we will also have to teach the press that argument is not necessarily the only way by which you can proceed."

Morally binding

Chris Hewitt, from the Institute for Public Policy Research, pointed out that though the UK's 20% target is not legally binding, it is morally binding. Moreover it is not conditional on the outcome from Kyoto; there had been enough statements by prime minister Tony Blair and deputy prime minister John Prescott to demonstrate that the government is serious about keeping its target, he said.

Summarising the theme of the conference, Hewitt claimed that cuts in CO2 will be good for the economy, exports and jobs. "In an economic sense it's a case of no skin off our nose: we will still be able to make our economy more efficient by reducing CO2." Pressing the point home, Michael Brown, from Cogen Europe, claimed there is increasing evidence that cutting emissions does bring a competitive advantage. "It will bring about accelerated development of the sort we are going to need in the market."

Liberalisation of energy markets can also deliver real climate benefits, albeit more by accident than design, he said. "What we might see is the climate issue actually being used as a spur to increase the rate of energy market liberalisation around Europe, and possibly around the world." Brown wanted to see the European community keep to its negotiating commitment of a 15% reduction in CO2 regardless of the outcome of the talks. The UK's large domestic target and its forthcoming presidency of the EU puts it in a strong position to ensure Europe does stick to its present position, he said. "The major point is that whatever happens, however long it takes, we are going to see these policies come in at some point or another, so why shouldn't Europe take the lead first? Why shouldn't Europe stick to its targets and gain a competitive advantage now?"

Meacher reminded the conference that unlike the UK target, Europe's aim for 15% CO2 reductions from 1990 levels by 2010 is not unilateral. "It is perfectly reasonably conditional on others making similar efforts. Europe cannot carry the world alone." Countries like the United States and Australia should not expect to be able to continue increasing their emissions, he said.

While much attention is focused on claims by fossil fuel lobbies in Australia and America about potential job losses, no one talks about the jobs that can be created from cutting CO2 emissions, complained Ute Collier from Friends of the Earth. She pointed to a study by Energy for Sustainable Development showing that 226,000 new jobs will be created through meeting the government's target. Eighty-four thousand of these will be created in the renewables sector -- stimulated by government policies to meet 10% of UK electricity from renewables by 2010.

The importance of renewable energy's contribution to meeting the target was stressed by energy minister John Battle. "We are reviewing policy to identify what would be necessary and practicable to achieve the 10%," he said. Meeting the target will require doubling the build rate of recent years. He pointed out that today about 2% of Britain's electricity comes from renewables, mostly large scale hydro. Non Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) orders already will add about 3% by 2003. "However, we still need to add to that a further 5% in the following six or seven years."

Renewables plea

The renewables industry will be able to deliver the 10%, pledged David Fitzherbert from the Confederation of Renewable Energy Associations. He called for the government to make a binding commitment to keeping this target. He reminded the conference that 10% of electricity from renewables would reduce CO2 emissions by 6 million tonnes. "That is equivalent to one-sixth of the total savings needed."

A more pessimistic global view was taken by Matthew Spencer of Greenpeace. The one Kyoto proposal -- by the Alliance of Small Island States -- that would have protected against a dangerous rate of climate change had been thrown out, he stated. This called for cuts of a fifth in industrialised world emissions. At the levels of reductions currently on the table, Kyoto will not even start to unlock the potential of renewable energy. "Because the levels can easily be ignored within basic energy efficiency programmes in most industrialised countries."

More upbeat views were put forward by the sustainable energy industry which is confident of meeting 52% of the government's target. As well as the 17% contribution from renewables, the conference heard that energy efficiency could meet a further 17% from the domestic sector alone. This figure does not include the huge potential of savings in the industrial and commercial sectors. Another 18% reduction will result from greater use of combined heat and power (CHP).

A note of caution was sounded by Meacher. The country is on track to meet its Rio commitments -- largely because of the switch from coal to gas, he pointed out. "But unless we introduce new policies now, CO2 emissions will start to rise again in the first half of the next century and are projected to be above 1990 levels by 2005, and to go on rising faster." Achieving the 20% reductions in greenhouse emissions will be difficult, he warned. "But I do not wish us to see this always as a burden. It presents important opportunities for industry, for developing the economy and making the UK more competitive."

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