Labour’s failure

Shadow environment minister Richard Ottaway sets out what he says is a catalogue of failures by the Labour government

In recent weeks the Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that he intended to put climate change at the heart of the government’s policies and make it a priority for Britain’s presidency of the G8 group of countries. All the evidence suggests that he has a long way to go. Britain in 2003 emitted more carbon into the atmosphere than when Labour came into office in 1997.

The government has three targets for climate change: the Kyoto greenhouse gas target, the targets for CO2 reductions for 2010 and in 2050. It has a qualified success on one and is failing on the other two.

The obligation under Kyoto is a 12.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels during the years 2008-12. The Kyoto Protocol (which is not yet in force and will not be until and unless Russia ratifies it) was born out of the Rio Earth Summit signed by Michael Howard in 1992.

By the time Kyoto was signed in 1997, the UK was already 8.4% below its 1990 levels and the 12.5% reduction was achieved in 1998/9. This was largely due to the ‘dash for gas’ and the expansion of gas-fired power stations in the early 1990s – a decision of the last Conservative government. By 2002, levels had reached a post-1990 low of 15.3%. 2003 saw an increase in the output of greenhouse gasses to 14% below 1990 levels. The challenge will be to keep the reductions greater than 12.5% during the critical window of 2008-12.

The second target is a 20% reduction in CO2 by 2010 from 1990 levels. Carbon dioxide emissions are now actually higher than they were when the government came into office in 1997. The DTI recently predicted that the level would be in the region of a 15.2% reduction by 2010 – another failed target.

The target which really discredits the value of targets is the government’s commitment to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. It is a worthy aim but succeeding generations will be sceptical over the reasons they have been lumbered with it. Just one year after the pledge was made, the impact of aviation emissions on CO2 targets became apparent. Firstly they hadn’t been included in the target. Secondly, as they are emitted at high level they have more impact – the ‘radiative forcing’ effect. Thirdly, by 2050, they will comprise 60% of the target levels. The Environmental Audit Select Committee recently reported that the most optimistic achievement would be a 35% reduction on CO2 emissions by 2050.

Commmitment to energy efficiency

Probably the best way of containing CO2 emissions is though energy efficiency. Last year’s Energy White Paper contained many warm words about energy efficiency. A 5Mt-carbon annual saving from domestic energy efficiency by 2010 was deemed to be possible.

Environment minister Elliot Morley said in November 2003 he was totally committed to a 5MtC target. This view was echoed by Lord Whitty, the energy efficiency minister. They were taking their cue from Gordon Brown, who said in July 2003 that the government’s aim was to save 5MtC through domestic energy efficiency. The target was finally set in stone only last March by secretary of state for trade and industry Patricia Hewett, who gave a commitment to a 5MtC improvement in household energy efficiency by 2010.

Accordingly it came as a surprise when the recently published Energy Efficiency Savings Plan said their aim was to deliver savings of 4.2MtC per annum by 2010.
In answer to my question exploring the reasons for the backtracking, Morley weakly stated that the revision had been made as the government had obtained more up-to-date information and completed a more detailed analysis of the cost-effectiveness of energy efficiency policies. The moral of the story here is, don’t make a target unless you know what you are talking about.

Target culture

The theme throughout is the government’s target culture. In the recycling of waste, the government is committed to a target of 25% of waste recycled by 2005. Currently only eight local authorities are at this level – many are below 10%. As these targets are weight-based, there is much enthusiasm for collecting biodegradables, which many people used to leave at the bottom of their garden!

Most people will see plastic as the number one material for recycling. However, it doesn’t weigh much and therefore doesn’t help in hitting the targets. And as there isn’t an established market for recycled plastic, there is far less enthusiasm in this sector.

As opposition spokesman for the environment, all this adds up to a government that has talked a lot about targets, but let the country down. The only target they have hit was largely the result of the last government’s actions!

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