UK Climate Change Strategy: SGR response (Feb 1999)

SGR Response to a UK government consultation, February 1999

General Overview

The Scale of Emissions Reductions Required

Currently, each year about a billion tonnes of carbon is emitted to the atmosphere as CO2 from fossil fuel burning. Of this about 3.5 billion tonnes remains in the atmosphere, and about two billion tonnes enters the ocean, and about 0.5 may be taken up by increased growth of northern temperate forests. Therefore is we wish to stabilise CO2 concentrations at the current level, we have to stop emitting the 3.5 billion tonnes that currently accumulates in the atmosphere each year  which means an immediate 60% reduction in emissions. There are also about six billion people in the world, so currently we emit on average one tonne per person per year, and this would have to be reduced to 0.4 tonnes per person per year. However, this average hides enormous inequity between rich and poor countries. The USA contains 4% of the world’s population but emits 25% of the CO2, or 5.42 tonnes of carbon per capita (1995 figures)., European Union emits 2.33 tonnes per capita, whereas for India the per capita figure is 0.23 tonnes. It is well known that the world’s population will dramatically increase, particularly in so called ‘developing countries (although the population of the USA is also increasing rapidly). Therefore it is obvious that  growing population combined with increasing per capita emissions will lead to catastrophic climate change.

The most obvious equitable principle for allocating quotas is that each person in the world should be entitled to emit the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which we must all share. Since the current inequality between the per capita emissions of the richest and poorest countries is so great, it is clear that those of us living in ‘developed nations’ should drastically reduce our per capita emissions. This would translate into an 80 or 90% cut in emissions.

We do recognise that this could not be achieved overnight, and therefore Scientists for global Responsibility supports the ‘Contraction and Convergence’ model proposed by the Global Commons Institute, whereby total global emissions would gradually contract towards a level that would stabilise the CO2 concentration at a safe level (e.g. 450ppmv). The proportion of the ‘cake’ allocated to each country would gradually converge to equal per capita emissions by a fixed date, e.g. 2045.

We support the principle of global emissions trading as outlined at COP 4, but this must not operate without the existence of a legally binding global cap on total emissions. At present, the system allows for countries to trade in ‘hot air’, i.e. they can sell emissions that they might not otherwise have used anyway. The EU ‘bubble’ agreed at Kyoto, goes some way to embracing the GCI proposal, but the amount of emissions reductions proposed is still far to small.

Therefore, we welcome the Governments voluntary agreement to aim to reduce the UK’s emissions to 20% below current levels by 2010, and endorse the conclusion that achieving this target will bring about new business opportunities in the UK and will lead to a better quality of  life, but we feel that this target is still too small.

It is of course vital that the Government has recognised the Carbon Dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas, Methane, Nitrous Oxide and Water Vapour also play a very significant part in climate change.  We thus welcome proposals put forward in the paper of how these emissions might be reduced, but again there are still some fundamental problems with the Government’s approach.

Our main suggestions for change put forward in this response are:

  • Recognising that the current economic system, based on growth and ever increasing consumption, is environmentally unsustainable. Once this has been acknowledged, there is much more scope for turning our intellectual resources towards coming up with sustainable solutions.
  • Shifting the tax burden from labour onto natural resource use.
  • Decreasing the use of energy intensive transport, particularly aeroplanes, by providing better public transport (trains, ferries, buses, cycling, walking),  and revising planning and building regulations to promote better infrastructures which will reduce the need to travel.
  • Promoting the development of renewable energy technologies and ensuring that renewable energy completely replaces fossil fuel burning and nuclear power.

III. Is the assessment of the task ahead for the UK broadly right?

It is stated that the government will not introduce measures that would damage competitiveness  (paragraph 15 p4) . This we interpret as an unwillingness on behalf of Government to  make any  fundamental challenge to the way people live their lives. At present we live a very resource intensive lifestyle, which is totally environmentally unsustainable. The edict that economic growth will solve all our problems is fundamentally wrong. The Government needs to be looking at ways of building a sustainable economy, not one based upon ever increasing production and consumption.

IV. What impact is the availability of flexible mechanisms under the Kyoto protocol likely to have on implementing the UK target?

The use of Kyoto flexibility mechanisms (A6JI, CDM, IET) should only make a minor contribution to meeting UK targets, both now and in the future. The UK should push for stringent rules governing A6JI and CDM projects so that they must produce significant local benefits for the host areas, e.g. contribution to poverty alleviation (including fuel poverty), local environment protection, job security.

Energy Supply Industry

General Comments

The use of economic instruments  to control energy use can be effective only if they are implemented correctly. Scientists for Global Responsibility fully supports the conclusions of the Marshall report, particularly with reference to using emissions trading for larger companies and properly structured taxes for smaller companies and organisations. SGR encourages the government to take action to speedily phase in ecological tax reform - i.e. tax on energy and pollution and a domestic tradable permits scheme for large emitters of pollutants - and to decrease taxes on labour.

II. How could measures to support renewables be most effectively targeted?

In paragraph  44 it states that the government will not prescribe which fuels should be used for electricity generation. It seems that Government is supposedly steering towards  renewable energy without making  a full and open commitment to ‘greener’ electricity generation. Only by actively seeking to change the way we generate energy, and how we use that energy, could we possibly hope to tackle the problem of sustainable energy generation and usage.
There should be a shift of subsidies from oil exploration to the development of sustainable energy generation such as wind and solar power. In addition  to classify energy from waste as renewable is inaccurate and misleading (p15) - UK energy statistics should be reclassified with waste separate from renewables like wind, solar, hydro immediately.


General Comments

We would firstly wish to point out that the current attitude of trying to fit changes in practice around the basic structure of business as it currently exists is fundamentally flawed. In other words, the current nature of many businesses, which exist to promote increased consumption  of goods and services is always going to cancel out any efforts to reduce emissions in a piecemeal fashion. IN order to really meet the challenge of climate change, the growth economy must be transformed to one based on a proper relationship between  the needs of people and the needs of the planet (i.e. maintaining climatic stability, biodivesity and a healthy environment).

VI. Are the estimates for investment costs and net energy/cost savings realistic?

The table in Paragraph 78 is very misleading. It states that the reduction target will be met by:

  • reducing Methane through improved waste management practices
  • reducing Nitrous Oxide through the installation of emission abatement technology.

This is an accounting trick, because the emissions reductions which will be achieved are a one off gain, i.e. there is only so much one can achieve with abatement technology, we need to question the fundamental structures and processes that lead to these emissions in the first place, that is where change needs to take place.

In addition the figures in the table suggest that there  will be no forecast redaction in Carbon Dioxide emissions. This is explained in paragraph 79 by the fact that there will be increased economic growth coupled with low energy prices. Paragraph 81 then goes on to point out that the Integrate Pollution and Prevention Control Directive (IPPC)  does not cover some of the most energy intensive industries, which are responsible for a large proportion of Carbon Dioxide emissions from the business sector.

This are clearly some problems with this:

  • The fact that there will be no significant reduction in Carbon Dioxide emissions from the Business sector because of economic growth and low energy prices, is exactly the problem that we are trying to point out. Economic growth leads to increase emissions. Supporting this growth with low energy prices clearly shows that the Government has not recognised that only by challenging the principle of environmentally unsustainable growth, and  increasing energy prices to reflect the environmental cost of overconsumption will they have any chance really tackling climate change.
  • The fact that the IPPC does not cover some of the most energy intensive industries, makes its introduction rather pointless. The idea that these industries must be protected because they are deemed to be an integral part of our economy, shows that we have to change the way the economy is organised, not simply tinker with it at it is. If research moneys were directed away from the development of the petrochemical and chemical industries, to trying to find new environmentally sound solutions then jobs lost in the large industries would be recreated by the emergence of new types of business and organisations.

XI. Are there options besides energy efficiency for reducing CO2 emissions from the business sector?

A. An increased tax on paper derived from unsustainable sources. Currently a significant proportion of paper consumed in the UK is derived from unmanaged ‘clear-cut’ forests. The tax would  encourage more efficient usage, and would  discourage overproduction of unnecessary paper products which are often discarded and placed in landfill sites (which emit greenhouse gases like methane) or are incinerated which directly contributes to global warming.

B. Scientists for Global Responsibility is actively promoting the use of electronic communications, within our own organisation for communication and organisational purposes, and to the general public. The increased use of electronic methods of communication will reduce the need for people to travel to meet eachother, and will also facilitate better and more efficient communication between distant places, both within one country and between countries. This will in turn contribute to a reduction emissions from the transport sector. The Government should be actively promoting the use of telecommunications technology in businesses and schools, and the public sector.


IV. How can we best stimulate changes in attitudes and behavior of organisations and individuals?

Our organisation tries to promote people to take responsibility for their own lives, and encourages them to see how their actions affect the lives of others on the planet, and the planet itself. We work actively with schools to try and promote the understanding science on a basic level, and to link this with the social and political context. Science is not an amoral discipline, its practice involves active moral decisions by practitioners, and thus the Government should also be trying to develop similar understanding in the wider population by supporting community education programs, and making it easier for small organisations already involved in this kind of work to operate.

V. Which other measures in the transport sector would have the greatest impact?

The Governments white paper on transport promoted the  development of regional airports, and is not making any significant contribution to forwarding the debate about allocation of emissions from aircraft at the global level. Emissions of greenhouse gases from aircraft are making a massive and growing contribution to climate change, this has to acknowledged openly by Government, and measures to reduce air travel must be developed.

On a short term basis taxes and charges on emissions should be introduced, in order to ‘force’ reduction in air travel. Since air transport in particular is one of the fastest growing sources of GHGs, this should be rectified ASAP. UK should insist at the next COP that these are included in national inventories, e.g. by allocation of emissions to country of origin.

Taxation levels must be similar to those imposed on terrestrial transport. The Air industry is effectively receiving a massive subsidy from Government because of this tax loophole. The industry is supported by planning rules (e.g. on obtaining private finance for expansion of airports) and by business, for example  the ‘air miles’ incentives offered by some airlines, which promotes unnecessary air travel. These air miles are often collected by those already flying around more than the average person, and thus there is a great inequity in the use of resources. But the answer is not to bring the lower up to the level of the higher, that principle is totally environmentally unsustainable, we must be seeking to reduce air travel overall. The government should be educating the public about how aircraft emissions affect our climate and how serious this is, and encourage the development of links with Europe that are ‘terrestrial. i.e. Eurostar (could it do anything about the high ticket prices?)

Domestic Sector

II. Which energy efficiency measures are likely to be the most cost effective and what information is available about the cost of these measures?

There is discussion in this section of the  paper about the need for low energy prices. Whilst fuel poverty must not be allowed to affect the poor (and the welfare can be used to ensure this), this must not be used as an excuse for keeping energy prices low. It is well known that low energy prices encourage wasteful use of energy - hence a balance must be maintained between keeping prices low enough to be affordable, but not so low as to discourage awareness of the importance of energy conservation.

Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use

IV. What scope or restraint is there for increases in carbon sinks through forestry?

We support afforestation and reforestation in the UK, but this should not be undertaken as a measure to absorb CO2,  forests should be managed such that they bring environmental and social benefits to local communities and are an integral part of preserving local ecology. For example there needs to be a careful consideration of what type of land the trees are planted upon. If trees are planted on a boggy, peaty area, they will dry out the soil and will thus release large quantities of Methane, which is acknowledged as itself being a very potent greenhouse gas. Careful consideration needs to be given to what kinds of trees to plant in order that they sustain and enhance local biodiversity of species, Large single variety plantations which are only there to absorb carbon dioxide, are in themselves damaging to the environment.

We would not wish to see the Government actively seeking to ‘mop up’ CO2 emissions by creating ‘sinks’ or by the use of ‘climate engineering technologies’ in any form. Scientists for Global Responsibility believes that attempts to modify the climate system, e.g. injection of CO2 into the deep ocean, genetic manipulation of algae to increase CO2 uptake, are wholly speculative and potentially dangerous technologies. The UK should not base its long term climate change strategy on such technologies whilst there is considerable scope for other measures.

The Foresight Natural Resources and Environment Panel of the DTI is currently promoting UK work in this area, this is not endorsed by us and we would wish the research capacities of the Government to be directed towards renewable energy generation and sustainable forms of reducing emissions.

General Conclusion

The overall tone of the consultation paper, is to try and establish piecemeal measures to reduce emissions. SGR recognises that large scale changes in lifestyle need to take place in order to really meet the challenge of Climate Change. We try and promote scientists, engineers and technical specialists to consider how their knowledge and expertise is being used, and to advise and assist them in trying to channel their ‘intellectual  capital’ into environmentally sustainable undertakings. We also try to educate the public about issues of ethical science and its applications, and we believe that only by encouraging people to see the ‘real picture’ can they begin to think for themselves, and take personal responsibility for their actions and endeavor to change their way of life to preserve our finite planet and ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren.

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