The government is to fall well short of its target of a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 due to its reliance on voluntary rather than mandatory environmental regulations, according to a new scientific report published today.
The independent audit, which was carried out by University College London's Environment Institute and commissioned by Channel 4's Dispatches programme, argued the government's claims that it is on track to deliver a 30 percent reduction in emissions were "very optimistic" and that a reduction of 12 to 17 percent was more realistic.
Reducing emissions at this rate means it would take until 2050 to cut emissions by 30 percent on 1990 levels, meaning the government would miss its target of slashing emissions by 60 percent by mid-century - which is expected to become legally binding as part of the imminent Climate Change Bill.
The report concludes that the "over-riding reason for the possible failure of the current government policies to achieve their stated targets is that nearly all of them are voluntary". It argues that the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by around 30 percent by 2020 "could be achieved if current policies were mandatory and new more prescriptive future policies were developed".
For example, the report highlights how government predictions that transport emissions will climb by just 4m tonnes are based on the assumption that manufacturers meet currently voluntary targets on improved fuel efficiency – something they have singularly failed to do in the past. In this light, it concludes that it is more realistic to expect emissions from transport to climb by up to 13m tonnes.
Similarly, it argues that predicted improvements in the energy efficiency of the housing stock are likely to be at least partially offset by the growing demand amongst consumers for energy-hungry consumer devices like widescreen plasma TVs – something the government does not appear to have adequately accounted for in its calculations.
The one silver lining in the report is the suggestion that the business community could fill the leadership vacuum provided by the lack of strong legislation from government. It accepts that it is hard to predict the impact that "changing consumer habits" could have on emissions and notes that there are encouraging signs that some firms are beginning to take global warming seriously.
"Recent announcements by two large UK retailers (Marks and Spencer and Tesco) show that the commercial sector is taking the carbon issue seriously, at least as a valuable marketing tool," the report claims. "Potential savings in emissions exist from commercial strategy as much as from government policy."
However, overall the report maintains that the shift towards green business models is being slowed by the lack of clear regulations and reinforces the argument that the government's environmental strategy has been high on rhetoric but low on action.
Writing in the Guardian, environmentalist and journalist George Monbiot - who will present tonight's Dispatches' programme on the study - said that the research threw a spotlight on the failure of the government's climate change strategy. "Blair has had 10 years in which to tackle Britain's contribution to global climate change, and he has blown it," he wrote. "His bold initiatives and stirring speeches now look like little more than greenwash. For the first time, we have the figures to prove it."
The report is also likely to cast a shadow over today's speech from the Environment Secretary David Milliband, which will see him call for a new industrial revolution based on low carbon technologies.
Speaking to an audience at Cambridge University he is expected to highlight the need for greater investment in carbon capture, electric cars and biofuels, as well as "political leadership at a local, national and European level prepared to make bold, long term, decisions".
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