CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves says time is running out, and if Britain cannot make significant impacts on emissions, our ability to persuade other countries to take climate change seriously will be badly undermined....

The government has confirmed what many suspected – it will not achieve its target to reduce carbon greenhouse gases by 20% by 2010. So, now we know. It is official, the government has now admitted it will fail to meet its own target by at least one third.

Environment secretary Margaret Beckett said she was “disappointed”. As well she might, because if we cannot make significant impacts on emissions, our ability to persuade other countries to take climate change seriously will be badly undermined. Furthermore, our ability to mitigate against floods, water scarcity and all the other impacts of global warming will be badly damaged.

Prime minister Tony Blair promised to put climate change at the heart of Britain’s chairmanship of the ‘rich man’s club’ of G8 nations. Given what we now know, will Blair be taken seriously? In a speech last September, Blair said he wanted the G8 to create an international consensus on the science of climate change – we must all wish him luck. In the face of criticisms on Iraq, Blair will be desperate to find a foreign policy that reconnects New Labour with the progressive middle-class alienated by the war. So, Blair is pursuing climate change and Africa as his two priorities for his G8 presidency.

For a government that rather likes rules and regulation, this administration is remarkably insouciant about the prospect of breaking one of its own – a target that appeared boldly in New Labour’s last two manifestos, one that has been reiterated publicly by Blair as a ‘priority’ and was the subject of an extensive programme launched in 2000. It has been the repeated pledge of government to cut Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions to a level 20% below that of 1990.

Yet Blair now admits at the current rate of progress, Britain’s emissions will have fallen by just 14% in 2008 – far enough to crest the relatively unambitious hurdle for cuts set by the Kyoto protocol, but too weak to reach the government’s own target. How has this happened? Well, the government was lucky to inherit a set of benign Kyoto targets that it was always on course to meet comfortably.

Technofix solutions and increased energy efficiency have contributed to a decline in carbon dioxide emissions. And as things stand, emissions are 7.5% below where they were 14 years ago – and at the same level as when New Labour came to power in 1997. Had the government done nothing on climate change, the outcome would have probably been the same. That lends a wounding accuracy to the charge from green groups and opposition politicians that the government talks a very good game, persuades itself, but, too often, fails to deliver.

There is no denying the government has continued to foster the use of private motor vehicles, through new road building and a continued freeze on petrol duty. It has also favoured the powerful tourism lobby by encouraging low-cost flights with the development of airports, and by resisting pressure to add duty to aviation fuel. The sad thing is this government has invested so much of its credibility in attempting to keep to its fiscal ‘golden rules’, even if it will not be the end of the world if the chancellor ends up a billion or two short. By comparison, global warming and climate change are serious and life-threatening.

The recent devastating flooding of Carlisle and surrounding countryside was a salutary reminder of that. For public finances the rules are sacrosanct and made of gold, while for the environment, they are eroded even as floods and water scarcity become a way of life for many. Make no mistake, we are all culpable. Between 1990 and 2003 industry actually reduced its overall emissions by 6%. During the same period, household emissions increased by more than 10% and emissions from transport increased by 4.6%. So, it is the consumers whom the government must target. Long distance commutes by car and cheap holidays abroad must surely be seen as antisocial behaviour. The freedoms we enjoy and take for granted are costing the earth – literally. It is time to change the way we live and confine the two-car, two-home, two foreign holiday style of living to history. Admitting failure and being ‘disappointed’ is not enough.

The government has another six years to achieve the carbon emissions target and, provided that it is prepared to take difficult decisions now and show the leadership we expect, could do so. Let us be frank, even a New Labour government cannot insulate the UK from the impacts of change in the climate that are affecting everybody else in the northern hemisphere. This requires a coordinated response from the developed countries. If Tony Blair can pull this off, he will have earned his third term as prime minister

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