Britain’s carbon emissions, the major cause of global warming, are set to increase despite the passing of Britain’s first ever Climate Change Bill last week.
The right wing press portrayed the government as having “backed down” to environmentalists by passing various amendments, including increasing Britain’s cuts to targets for carbon emissions.
In reality New Labour’s neoliberal agenda won the day.
Tackling the growing levels of emissions from international aviation and shipping industries are crucial to any attempt to reduce global warming. Yet in the Climate Change Bill the government says it will merely “take account” of them when setting its five-year carbon budgets.
And, because there is international disagreement over how to assign these emissions to particular countries, they will not be included in the government’s targets until this is resolved – which is not anticipated to be earlier than 2012.
This is a disaster for the planet. A United Nations study earlier this year revealed that the true scale of emissions from shipping was almost 4.5 percent of all global emissions – more than double the amount claimed by many world leaders. These emissions are set to increase by 30 percent by 2020.
Not only does the bill fail to force cuts in these areas, by continuing to back the development of a third runway at Heathrow and the expansion of Stansted airport, the government is promoting policies that will increase them.
The part of the bill that relates to companies publishing information about their emissions won admiring headlines in the more environmentally concerned newspapers. But even here the government has watered its commitment down.
In July, the government removed an amendment that would have forced some companies to report on their emissions.
Instead, the government said it will “develop and issue guidance” on how companies should report their emissions to “help create a common standard”. Actual reporting will not begin until 2012 at the earliest.
At the heart of the bill is a commitment to cut Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
This sounds like a good thing but there are major problems in the government’s approach. To achieve this cut, the bill focuses heavily on carbon “budgets” and carbon trading.
Carbon trading is fundamentally flawed. It allows richer nations and businesses to buy carbon credits from others in order to allow them to keep emitting carbon. The theory is that, if everyone has the same carbon budget, transferring emissions from one place to another will not lead to an overall increase.
The problem is that poorer nations, many of which are unlikely to use all of their carbon allocation, will sell their excess credits to countries and firms that want to emit more than they do already. This means that under the scheme, global emissions could well increase, not decrease.
The government added an amendment to its bill that removes limits on the extent to which internationally traded carbon credits can be used to meet Britain’s emissions targets.
This will allow the government to use carbon trading, rather than real cuts in emissions, to meet its targets.
New Labour’s devotion to the market means that it relies on the private sector to provide energy, transport and buildings – ensuring that the need for short-term profits dominates.
This devotion to the market is threatening the development of renewable energy.
The government has a target of providing a third of Britain’s electricity from wind power by 2020. But the wind energy programme is collapsing due to lack of investment and rising costs.
Meanwhile the government-backed proposed coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent, is estimated to produce 8.1 million tonnes of carbon every year – more than the combined emissions of 30 poorer countries.
The commitment to neoliberalism also explains why New Labour backs coal – it is easier for companies to make quick profits from fossil fuels as they are already researched, the technology exists and extensive plants are already built.
The government’s approach to the environment is trapped within the framework of the market. So, the Climate Change Committee, which was set up to advise the government as the bill went through parliament, has to take into account “competitiveness” when making its recommendations.
This means that it has to consider whether measures to reduce carbon emissions could “impair the international competitiveness of particular industry sectors”.
Which goes some way to explaining why measures to cut emissions from the shipping, aviation, coal and nuclear industries are less than forthcoming.
The government’s approach to the environment reflects the madness of the system we live in.
The dynamism of capitalism and the constant revolutionising of production, while damaging the planet, have also created potential solutions to the problem of climate change.
Yet because the system is organised on the basis of what is profitable, these solutions are held back.
The government should make massive investments in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures and introduce laws to actually cut emissions rather than transfer them from one place to another.
But because this would contradict the logic of capitalism it will not do so without a fight.