Britain Declares Greenhouse Gas Cuts

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Britain today became the first country in the world to declare a legally binding target for greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020—and it’s a fairly ambitious one at that.

Speaking before Parliament, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne pledged that the U.K would cut carbon emissions in half by 2027 compared to 1990, and in so doing change the way Britain produces energy.  He set out a “carbon budget”of 1950 million tonnes of CO2 for the period that will span from 2023 to 2027, putting the UK on course to cut emissions by at least 80% by 2050

“Meeting the target is ambitious but achievable,” he said. “By providing long-term clarity for investors, the Fourth Carbon Budget places the UK at the leading edge of the global low-carbon industrial transformation. It will set Britain on the path to green growth. It will establish our competitive advantage in the most rapidly growing sectors of the world economy, generate jobs and export opportunities in these sectors, maintain energy security and protect our economy from oil price volatility. It is a framework not just for action on climate but for growth and prosperity.”

That’s a sentiment environmental groups in the U.K. actually agree with. The emissions cuts had been at the center of a row between government departments inside Westminster, as the Treasury and Department for Business Innovation and Skills had argued that  strict cuts could damage the British economy. Greenpeace described the agreement as “rare victory for the green growth agenda” in the face of what it said was “vehement” opposition from the Treasury and the Department of Business.

But Friends of the Earth criticized an “opt-out” that would allow Britain to abandon the targets if EU competitors fail on similar aims. Press reports in Britain suggested the opt-out was included as a concession to the Treasury and Department for Business. “The inclusion of a get-out clause’ creates needless uncertainty that could dent business confidence,” Friends of the Earth Executive Director Andy Atkins said.

Even so, it’s exciting to see a developed country take serious steps to develop a low-carbon economy over the long-term.  And the hope is that doing so needn’t mean huge sacrifices. It seems likely that companies (Siemens anyone?) specializing in wind turbines will now be more willing to invest in Britain. A commitment to renewable energy—40% of the UKs power will need to come from wind, wave and tide by 2030 to meet targets, a government panel recently found—will stimulate industry in the UK, too. The UK has potential for home-made tidal power plants, wave generators and carbon capture and storage technologies. It’s nice to imagine renewables as big business in the UK.

Of course, it won’t be entirely pain-free for consumers. Independent experts have estimated that to meet the commitment will require $25 billion a year of investment—a good portion of this money will likely come from increases in electricity prices. But Prime Minister David Cameron said the overall message of Britain’s historic carbon commitment was that ““The transition to a low-carbon economy is necessary, real, and global. By stepping up, showing leadership and competing with the world, the UK can prove that there need not be a tension between green and growth.”

It was only a short while ago that British environmentalists were mourning the death of efforts to agree on internationally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions. There’s little doubt that such an agreement would have been an effective mechanism for tackling climate change. But short of that, hats off to the British government for forging ahead with local efforts to sustainably tackle a global problem.