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Carbon con-trick

Michael Meacher MP says the government's low carbon transition plan is built on an accounting trick whereby developing countries shoulder the burden

October 1, 2009
4 min read

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has produced a glossy booklet giving you 11 handy tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint. It tells you that you could save up to £90 a year by replacing an old, inefficient boiler – but not that a new efficient condensing boiler could cost you £1,500. It says that installing double glazing could save you up to £80 a year – but not that it could cost you well over £1,000 to put in. Even the booklet itself costs £34.55.

Stopping climate change does not come cheap, but the DECC doesn’t have the political clout to clinch No 10’s support ahead of other, more immediate priorities. So it’s important to look under the gloss to see how the government actually plans to meet its targets.

UK greenhouse gas emissions have gone down by just 1 per cent a year since the 1990 baseline. Cuts of 3.2 per cent per year are needed from now to meet Britain’s target of an 80 per cent cut by 2050. That is a very big change indeed required both in our technology and in our behaviour. But these figures still understate the magnitude of the change needed, for two main reasons.

Much of the reduction so far has come from closing down coal-fired power stations and other carbon-inefficient processes and equipment, a process that is now largely complete. And the 1 per cent cuts per year so far do not include international aviation and shipping emissions, which have increased substantially and are now included in the 2050 target.

But the government has a wheeze. Its primary policy instrument is the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS), which requires energy-intensive industries to obtain permits for their emissions in a market. Crucially, however, the ETS allows these big polluters to buy emission credits as a substitute for cutting their own emissions. When they are bought from abroad, they still count towards the UK targets.

Seventy per cent of UK emissions come from industrial sectors that are within the EU ETS, and the government is proposing that there should be no limit on the extent to which carbon trading is used to meet their targets. Thus the only part of the UK target that will be achieved entirely by in-country reductions is the 30 per cent that derives from non-ETS sectors.

Different complexion

This puts an entirely different complexion on the government’s low carbon plan. Far from leading the world in the ambition of wholesale reconfiguring of the UK economy, the transformation is being minimised and the responsibility is being dumped abroad, mainly on the developing countries.

The implications of this begin to throw light on other aspects of the government’s climate change strategy. It explains why the government is content for the third runway at Heathrow to be built. It explains too why it is relaxed about giving the go-ahead to at least four new coal-fired power stations, even though coal is the most polluting of all fuels. Energy companies and airlines can simply purchase most of the carbon credits they need from abroad.

But of course that leaves the other side of the equation – and the developing world will bear an additional and disproportionate burden. The G8 has proposed a global target of a 50 per cent cut by 2050. Half of world greenhouse gas production is some 14.6 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent. If the 35 rich industrialised countries (‘Annex 1’ countries in the Kyoto jargon) reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent, including the offsets they’ve purchased, that will reduce global emissions by 12 billion tonnes. That leaves other countries to make emissions cuts of 2.6 billion tonnes on top of the offsets that they’ve sold. Their total obligation therefore rises to 8.6 billion tonnes – a massive 60 per cent of their present emissions.

Rich countries, the originators of the climate crisis, end up cutting their emissions far less than developing countries. Having historically industrialised at the expense of the developing countries by closing down their incipient industries and exploiting their raw commodities, the rich North is now making the poor South shoulder most of the burden of the consequences.

The loophole allowing at least half, and even up to 70 per cent, of UK emission reductions to be bought out by activities credited abroad lets the worst polluters off the hook. Meanwhile, it puts poorer countries in an impossible bind – and because they cannot possibly achieve what is now being offloaded onto them, it will open up a gigantic hole in the entire global project to arrest and reverse climate destruction.

Michael Meacher was environment minister from 1997 to 2003

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