By Blundell, Tom
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4626
All forms of energy production have effects on the environment: damaging air pollutants come from fossil fuels; large windfarms intrude on upland scenery; radioactive emissions result from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel; and woodlands are destroyed to supply cooking and heating fuels. However, the most serious damage will be done by the carbon dioxide produced from the burning of fossil fuels, the largest single source -- accounting for 75 per cent -- of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity; and thus the largest cause of global warming. The concentration of carbon dioxide is already higher than at any time for millions of years, and we seem to be experiencing the first effects of global warming.
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, of which I am chairman, supported the proposal that an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 550 parts per million by volume (ppmv) -- approximately double the pre-industrial level -- should be regarded as an upper limit that should not be exceeded. The current concentration is around 370 ppmv.
If all remaining reserves of fossil fuels were burnt during this century, the resulting build-up of carbon dioxide would go well above 550 ppmv, leading to dangerous and destructive climate change. Thus the issue is not whether there are enough fossil fuel reserves, but rather whether we can restrict the use of fossil fuels, starting now. A sustainable energy policy should protect the interests of generations to come, but it must also try to achieve social justice, a higher quality of life and industrial competitiveness today. Achieving the right balance is formidably difficult; current policies do not strike it.
Developing nations produce much less carbon dioxide per head than developed countries such as the UK. Indeed, around 2.5 billion people currently have no access to modern energy services. Such people, and those who have limited access, will seek more. So we need a just basis for long-term international agreement on how to limit each country's emissions.
The most promising solution is to allocate emission rights to nations on a per capita basis -- enshrining the idea that every human is entitled to release into the atmosphere the same quantity of greenhouse gases. But because of the wide differences between per capita emission levels around the world, and because current global emissions are already above safe levels, there will have to be an adjustment period covering several decades in which nations' quotas converge on the same per capita level. In other words, we shall need both contraction and convergence, as proposed by Aubrey Meyer, with developed countries reducing their emissions while many developing nations increase theirs.
For the UK, an international agreement that prevented carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from exceeding 550 ppmv and achieved convergence by 2050 could imply a reduction of 60 per cent from current annual carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, and perhaps of 60 percent by 2100.
These are enormous changes. Though the UK points to its own substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions when exhorting other nations to act, the truth is that its energy use is still increasing. Moreover, the factors that led to its emission reductions over the past decade are largely coincidental. The major one is the substitution of gas for coal in power stations.
This will contribute to further reductions in this decade, but making substantial additional cuts in carbon dioxide emissions will become much more difficult for the UK after 2010.
The government's goal of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010 (compared to the 1990 level) is far more ambitious than the Kyoto obligation of 12.5 per cent. However, its draft climate change programme will not actually achieve this 20 per cent goal.
More radical changes will be needed. The government, for example, will need to give much higher priority to energy efficiency. …