can uk cut gas emissions by a fifth by 2020?
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Drinking rainwater from banana leaf, Nigeria. (c) I. Uwanaka/UNEP
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climate change > features > analysis
can uk cut gas emissions by a fifth by 2020?

Can UK cut gas emissions by a fifth by 2020?

Posted: 03 Dec 2008

Earlier this week the UK government's climate change committee proposed ambitious targets to cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions by a fifth in just over a decade. This would be done by transforming the way electricity is produced and redesigning buildings, appliances and cars. But can it be done? In this analysis The Guardian Environment correspondent, David Adam, says only if the usual yawning gap between aims and outcomes is, this time, overcome.

It will be hard for ministers to disagree with the policies the Climate Change Committee suggests to hit its 2020 carbon targets, given that the government has already announced most of them.

BedZED ecovillage
Aerial view of BedZED ecovillage, South London. Photo � Bill Dunster Architects

Bar some relatively minor clearing up of pollution from trains, vans and HGVs, the committee's package of measures bears an uncanny resemblance to the government's. Measures to improve the fuel efficiency of cars? Check. Encouragement for investment in renewable energy? Check. Biofuels? Check. Energy efficiency? Check.

As the committee points out, current government "policies and aspirations" are more than enough to hit the new 2020 target. The problem, it also notes, is that the UK has a "mixed track record" on delivering action on climate change.

We have been here before. In 2006, ministers took 18-months to analyse how they could avoid missing their self-imposed target to slash carbon dioxide 20 peer cent by 2010, an ever-present pledge from their original 1997 election manifesto, before deciding it was too difficult. Some options were too expensive, some picked too much of a fight with industry, and some were too awkward politically.

Almost half the carbon savings anticipated by the government by 2020 are highlighted by the committee to be from policies "not yet firm and funded". If they are serious about adopting the committee's carbon budgets, that will have to change.

Seductive logic

There is nothing from the pages of science-fiction in the committee's suggested measures. Similar to last year's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reached the same positive conclusions about what was possible, the committee merely takes the best available technology in the different sectors and questions why it shouldn't be introduced more widely.

It's seductive logic, and the carbon savings rack up with reassuring ease. Massive expansion of wind energy, with fast-tracked nuclear power as back-up, to keep the lights on. New and upgraded loft insulation fitted to 13m UK houses, with wall insulation for 11m more, to keep the heat in.

A more aware population who wash their clothes in colder water, live in colder houses and switch lights off when they leave the room. Large scale deployment of microrenewables such as wind turbines and solar panels on houses. Smoother, fuel frugal driving with less use of the right-foot. And all with a price tag of just 1 per cent of GDP in 2020.

Enough slack?

So, the 1 per cent of GDP question: will it work? The committee is prudent enough to recognise the giant gulf between what is technically possible and what is realistic. But, it argues, there is enough slack in the system to reach the demanding 2020 target.

But slack still needs firm hands to be pulled in against the political, economic and corporate resistance that remains.

Despite the dire predictions for global warming, car manufacturers will continue to lobby against fuel-efficiency standards, renewable energy will still be relatively expensive, and the Daily Mail is unlikely to embrace tighter controls on who can drive where and at what speed.

And while it is easy for the committee's experts to explain that fitting insulation and turning lights off saves money, much harder is making real the cultural shift needed to change habits, and, in the words of one exasperated expert "to force people to pick up the ten pound notes lying on the floor".

The total carbon savings the committee thinks possible by 2020 are actually lower than the government expects from its existing policies.

"The fact that policy has not always delivered raises the question of whether policy will deliver in future," the committee notes. We must hope that, this time, it does.

Copyright The Guardian. Reproduced with permission

See the full Guardian coverage, including George Monbiot's scathing verdict on the committee's proposals here

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