Green papers, white lies, hot air

Britain's policy on global warming remains mired in confusion, with too much debate and too little a

When the most powerful woman on the planet speaks, it's a good idea to listen. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who recently knocked Condoleezza Rice off Forbes's top spot for powerful women, suggested an innovative solution to climate change late last month. Speaking in the Japanese city of Kyoto, where the 1997 protocol was signed, the German chancellor proposed an equal-rights framework for carbon emissions, where each country would get emissions entitlements assigned on the basis of its population.

The UK's Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, shows no sign of having heard Merkel's words.

The idea that a global deal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions must involve a convergence to equal per-capita allocations is not new: it is textbook "contraction and convergence" (C&C) - a climate policy framework first advanced by Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute more than a decade ago, and subsequently supported by numerous influential people, from the Indian prime minister to the Archbishop of Canterbury. As Merkel pointed out, only C&C offers a fair basis for bringing developing countries such as India and China into a future post-Kyoto emissions framework. Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate-change official, believes the plan to be the "only equitable, ultimate solution".

We have only eight years to go before the UN's target date when greenhouse gases must start to decline if we are to have a realistic chance of limiting eventual global warming to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels (as the EU, among many others, demands). Yet Britain's climate policy remains mired in confusion.

Gordon Brown and Hilary Benn have inherited Blair's old target of a 60 per cent reduction by 2050, but the truth is that, under an equitable framework such as C&C, Britain would need an 85 per cent cut because of our relatively small population and high emissions. This is a simple piece of mathematics that government ministers show no sign of having considered.

At this year's Labour party conference, with policy proposals flying around for every issue under the sun, this is perhaps the most im portant. If Brown's government were to join Germany, India and most African countries in proposing a C&C framework to supersede Kyoto when its first phase expires in 2012, the world would have taken its biggest step forward since the Climate Change Convention was first agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, way back in 1992.

Brown talks of equity as one of his guiding moral principles, and global warming provides a chance like no other. Equity is not just desirable, but essential if climatic equilibrium is to be maintained.

To their credit, the Liberal Democrats have already recognised this. Their Zero Carbon Britain policy document, released to media indifference last month, explicitly puts C&C at the heart of government policy - recognising that without setting a global framework for calculating Britain's fair share of a worldwide emissions budget, any UK target is meaningless.

Even without a clear long-term target, some very big decisions are looming that will have consequences for decades - and, indeed, centuries - to come. First, Gordon Brown needs to make it clear to the electricity industry that the era of coal as a fuel source for power generation is over. It is insane that, while we lecture others at international gatherings about their need to go low-carbon, a single British power station (Drax in Yorkshire) is allowed to continue emitting more CO2 from a single chimney than at least 100 countries.

Worse, the government seems poised to agree to a new round of coal-fired power gen eration: RWE npower is proposing to spend £1bn on building a coal-burning plant at Tilbury in Essex, while E.ON UK (which owns Powergen) wants to replace its ageing Kingsnorth plant in Kent with two new 800-megawatt coal-burning units. Other power companies are watching closely, ready to advance plans for yet more new coal plants. Never mind the bitter row over nuclear power: the government's decision on whether to allow this new coal rush is far more significant in terms of Britain's impact on climate change.

Blue-sky thinking

With dirty power plants on the horizon, the clean energy revolution looks stalled. Onshore windfarms are held up by Land Rover-driving nimbies worried about their postcard views; offshore wind investment is languishing because of a lack of government incentives. The Renewables Obligation scheme is complex and gives little long-term certainty and most experts now agree it should be replaced by a feed-in tariff system as used in Germany and Spain.

Tellingly, both these countries have surged ahead with renewable power in recent years. For small generators, government policy has been little short of disastrous: the poorly funded Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP) has succeeded so far only in putting off prospective householders and driving solar companies into bankruptcy. Here, too, a feed-in law could help, by guaranteeing a high long-term return on investment for anyone who decides to make the leap of investing in rooftop solar arrays or other microgeneration technologies.

Every mile of M1 widening soaks up the same amount of government money as the entire LCBP, as I have written before. Yet this hosing of public funds at hugely polluting motorways may be about to get worse: the government is considering awarding a £3bn contract - the largest ever - for widening the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester. This appalling waste of money can still be stopped, and we should look to this decision for a true indication of whether Labour intends to get serious about global warming.

The long-awaited Climate Bill is supposed to straighten out these contradictions by setting a national budget for carbon emissions and then forcing the government to make us all stick to it. Whether this is done by ramping up carbon taxes or by bringing in personal carbon allowances, the government is going to have to take measures at some stage to discourage excessive carbon consumption at the individual level.

The Climate Bill as proposed also contains a loophole - one big enough to fly a jet airliner through. By exempting aviation from our national carbon budget, the government will allow millions more tonnes of carbon to leak into the atmosphere, negating efforts in other sectors of the economy.

International negotiations will be key to closing this loophole but, in the meantime, Brown could send a clear sign of the changing times by putting the brakes on airport expansion. This is where true climate policy is made - in tarmac and hard cash, not green papers and white lies.