Just a lot of hot air
- Just a lot of hot air
Tony Blair talks the talk on climate change. But a new investigation
reveals that the government's strategies for cutting carbon dioxide
emissions are little more than a sham. By George Monbiot
Monday March 5, 2007
'If we do not motivate ourselves to take the decisions commensurate
with the gravity of the threat that we face," said Tony Blair at the
launch of the Bill Clinton's climate initiative last year, "we will
betray in the most irresponsible way the generations to come. That is
not something I want on my conscience as a political leader."
Well, it looks as if he is going to have to live with it. Blair has
had 10 years in which to tackle Britain's contribution to global
climate change, and he has blown it. His bold initiatives and
stirring speeches now look like little more than greenwash. For the
first time, we have the figures to prove it.
With Channel 4's series Dispatches, I commissioned a team of
environmental scientists at University College, London, to conduct a
peer-reviewed audit of the government's planned greenhouse gas
reductions. The scientists, led by Professor Mark Maslin, estimated
the real impact of its carbon-cutting policies. Nothing quite like
this has ever been done before. The results are staggering.
The government has two formal targets for reducing Britain's climate-
changing gases. The first is the one set by the Kyoto protocol, which
commits the UK to a 12.5% reduction by 2012. The second is its long-
term goal of a 60% cut in carbon dioxide by 2050. This target will be
made legally binding later this year.
Last year the government's Energy Review found that to show "real
progress" towards the 2050 target, by 2020 the UK's greenhouse gas
emissions would need to be reduced to between 143 and 149m tonnes a
year. This means a cut of 29 to 31% on 1990 levels. We asked Maslin's
team to assess the policies that are supposed to deliver it.
For an audit, the 2020 aim is more useful than the 2050 target. If we
are to have a realistic chance of hitting it, the necessary policies
must already be in place or in development. While the Blair
government would be only partly responsible if we fail to make 60% by
2050, it will carry almost all the blame if we do not reach its
milestone in 2020.
Our audit reveals that the government's assessment of its own
policies is wildly optimistic. Instead of a 29-31% cut by 2020, it is
on course to deliver a reduction of between 12% and 17%. At this rate
the UK will not meet its 2020 milestone until 2050. This result
suggests that the government's claim to be "leading the world on
tackling climate change" is simply another product of the Downing
Street spin machine. Its carbon-cutting policies are little more than
a sham. Take transport, for example. The government expects that
national transport emissions (not counting international flights)
will rise by 4m tonnes between 1990 and 2020. Maslin's team
discovered that the real increase will be between 7 and 13m tonnes.
Faced with a vocal and powerful motoring lobby, Blair's government
has sought to cut emissions in three ways, all of which are failing.
The first is a voluntary agreement, struck in Brussels with the major
motor manufacturers. In 1998, the car makers promised they would
reduce the average emissions from new cars from 190 to 140 grams per
kilometre in 10 years. The deadline is next year, and they will miss
their target by half: the real figure is likely to be 164 grams.
The second mechanism is the tax we pay to put a car on the road -
vehicle excise duty (VED). In 2001, the government replaced the flat
rate for VED with a graduated tax. Owners of the most fuel-hungry
cars would have to pay more than owners of efficient models. Seven
bands were introduced, starting with A (for cars that produce less
than 100 grams per kilometre) and rising to G (for those producing
more than 225 grams).
A survey carried out by the Department for Transport found that to
encourage most drivers to switch to a less polluting model, you would
need a difference between the bands of at least £150. The
government's Sustainable Development Commission went further: if the
tax were to be really effective, the top whack should be £1,800. But
the government's top rate is £215, and the average difference between
the bands £35. When you are shelling out £65,000 for a Range Rover,
is that really going to make a difference?
The third policy is to encourage us to switch to biofuels - diesel or
alcohol made from plants. By 2010, the government wants 5% of all our
transport fuels to be made this way. By 2020, the EU wants to raise
this to 20%. But there are two massive problems, which the government
consistently refuses to address. The first is that beyond a certain
point, the production of fuel begins to compete directly with the
production of food. A study conducted last year by Sarasin, a Swiss
bank placed "the present limit for the environmentally and socially
responsible use of biofuels at roughly 5% of current petrol and
diesel consumption in the EU and US". Already, when only a tiny
fraction of our transport fuel comes from plants, the UN's Food and
Agriculture Organisation reports that the demand for biofuels has
helped to cause a "surge in the prices of cereals" to "levels not
seen for a decade". All over the world, the poor are feeling the
The second problem is that the new market has stimulated a massive
expansion of destructive plantations, especially of oil palm. Palm
oil planting is the major cause of tropical deforestation in both
Malaysia and Indonesia. As the forests are cut down, the carbon in
both the trees and the peat they grow on turns into carbon dioxide. A
study by the Dutch scientific consultancy Delft Hydraulics found that
the production of every tonne of palm oil causes 33 tonnes of carbon
dioxide emissions. This makes oil palm 10 times worse than petroleum.
Already nine new palm oil refineries are being built, in Malaysia,
Singapore and Rotterdam, specifically to meet the growing demand from
the European biofuel market.
The government urges us not to worry - a "second generation" of
biofuels will eventually become available, made from straw, wood and
waste. But there is no guarantee that these will out-compete their
cheap but destructive rivals, or that they will be ready before the
last rain-forests in south-east Asia have been felled.
In every sector the audit found similar oversights, elisions and
deceptions. In housing, for example, the government has loudly
proclaimed its intention to use better building regulations to make
new houses more energy efficient - by 2016, it says, every new home
in the country will be "zero carbon". But since the energy efficiency
regulations were first introduced in 1985 there has not been a single
prosecution for non-compliance. Building inspectors treat the energy
rules as a joke - in one recent survey they dismissed them
as "trivial" and "not life threatening". A study by the Building
Research Establishment of new houses passed by the inspectors found
that 43% of them did not meet satisfactory energy standards.
But the biggest greenwash of all involves flying. Under the Kyoto
protocol, the pollution from international flights does not count
towards a country's emissions. The government has taken this as a
licence to ignore flying even when setting its own targets. The
emissions simply do not appear on the balance sheet. Otherwise it
could not justify its instruction to the UK's airports to double
their capacity between now and 2030.
Because they were assessing the government's own programme, the
auditors didn't produce figures for aviation. But even the government
proposes that carbon emissions from planes will rise by 10.5m tonnes
between 1990 and 2020. Had it been incorporated into the audit, this
figure would have reduced the cuts for the whole economy by 2020 to
between 8 and 13%.
But the government's figure is almost certainly a wild underestimate.
It counts only half the emissions from planes flying to and from our
airports, on the grounds that only half the passengers belong to this
country. In reality, 67% are UK citizens. It also ignores the other
greenhouse gases - especially high-level water vapour - that flying
produces. If increases in international flights were counted in the
national total, they could wipe out all the cuts in the UK's
emissions between 1990 and 2020.
What makes these failures most shocking is that Blair's government
took office in 1997 with a massive head start. When John Major left
office, the UK was one of the few nations on course to meet its Kyoto
commitments, with plenty of emissions to spare. That advantage has
already been squandered. Today the UK is turning out slightly more
carbon dioxide than it was in 1997 (though other greenhouse gases
have declined) and we will just scrape in beneath the 2012 Kyoto bar,
while on course for dramatically missing our 2020 and 2050 targets.
Instead of real action to deal with the greatest menace of the 21st
century, the government has sold us a set of fake policies, designed
to make us feel better about ourselves, without political pain. Next
time Blair gives a heart-rending speech about his legacy to future
generations, don't believe a word of it.