British Stick to Their Guns on Climate Change

Center-right government adopts stronger-than-ever emissions reduction program


Following the adoption in 1997 of the Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the United Kingdom—followed closely by Germany—adopted an ambitious program of greenhouse gas reduction. The U.K. and Germany had considerable success, reducing their GHG emissions by 21-25 percent (depending whether land use changes are included or not)  from 1990 to 2010, much more than Kyoto required of European Union members.

Their good example, however, was not universally followed, to put it mildly. Rapidly developing countries like China and India were not required to make cuts under Kyoto, and they have stubbornly refused even to set emissions targets for the future. The United States, which declined to take part in the Kyoto program, saw its emissions climb 8-9 percent from 1990 to 2010; Canada, having seen its emissions sky-rocket--by 17.4 percent, excluding land use changes, and 46.4 percent(!), with changes--dropped out of the Kyoto agreement last year.

When definitive data become available for 2011 and 2012, to be sure, the U.S. numbers will undoubtedly look better, but Canada's will look even worse. With major players like the United States, Canada, China, and India no closer than ever to an agreement on greenhouse gas reductions—and with not-so minor players like Turkey and New Zealand emitting immensely more than ever before—you might think that Britain's current conservative government would declare the country's climate program futile and throw in the towel. The program, after all, was formulated by a Labor government that the British have repudiated. To the contrary, last week the British conservatives unveiled a continuation of the program that is in some ways stronger than ever.

In the newly revised program, the charge levied on residential and business consumers of electricity to support low-carbon generation will be quadrupled in the next eight years, to raise a total of roughly $16 billion per year by 2020-21. In that period, the proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources will increase from 11 percent to 30 percent, according to the center-right government's minister of energy and climate. Fees also are intended to support the deployment of new nuclear power plants. Both nuclear energy and wind will benefit from a newly introduced "contract with difference" mechanism, which closely resembles the feed-in electricity tariffs pioneered more than a decade ago by Germany and Denmark: If prices for wind- and nuclear-generated electricity fall below designated levels, the government will make up the difference, so that suppliers are guaranteed a profit.

The new program is by no means uncontroversial. Consumer advocates naturally don't like the higher electricity bills. The business community just as naturally worries about added costs and international competitiveness. And with Britain's economy still faltering, both business and labor fret over the impacts on jobs. Nuclear energy is unpopular across the political spectrum, and wind is contested even among environmentalists, many of whom dislike its effects on wildlife and landscapes. So it is all the more striking, from an international point of view, that the conservative government has stuck with such an aggressive program.

Will the British perseverance have an influence in countries like the United States, which has been doing better with emissions but could do much better still, or Germany, or Japan, which have been back-sliding? At the least, the alarm signals sounded by other players in recent weeks will be amplified. As reported here, the World Bank recently warned that if the world does not radically change course, the effects of higher temperatures will be "devastating." The International Energy Agency has drawn attention to global subsidies for fossil fuels that totaled more than US $500 billion last year. The World Resources Institute fears that 1200 new coal-fired plants may be built in the next decades, which would make global devastation a virtual certainty.

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