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Britain unveils 'global first' bill to cut CO2 emissions

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 2007


Britain claimed a global first Tuesday when it unveiled a much-vaunted climate-change law that would fix targets for cutting carbon-dioxide emissions, set up an expert panel to scrutinize progress, and establish carbon "budgets" to instill discipline in the same way that treasury budgets do.

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The bill, still some months away from becoming law, would erect a legal framework for reducing carbon emissions by 26 to 32 percent by 2020 and by 60 percent by 2050. Failure to abide by the law would leave governments exposed to political humiliation and possibly court action in the form of judicial review.

"The draft climate-change bill is the first of its kind in any country," said environment secretary David Miliband. "With climate change, we can't just close our eyes and cross our fingers. We need to step up our action to tackle it."

Environmentalists broadly welcomed the move and said that it would set a positive example of concrete action to tackle climate change to the rest of the world.

But scientists warned that the new-found political vigor may not be enough to keep global temperature rises in check and thus prevent environmental, social, and economic havoc.

"It may be the most significant step from any country across the globe, but from a scientific perspective, it still falls short of what is needed to control climate change," says Prof. Kevin Anderson, a scientist with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, a leading British global-warming think tank.

Katie Elliott, climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth, says the bill was an exciting moment. "Climate change will now have to be considered in all policy decisions," Ms. Elliott says. "But there are a few questions that still need to be answered, such as if this is commensurate with the scale of the threat. The latest science says that probably it isn't."

Rapidly growing public concern

The new bill is the tip of an iceberg of initiatives under consideration in a country where climate change is rapidly emerging as a key political issue. Following ominous studies such as the Stern report in October and the UN panel report last month, a recent survey found that 19 percent of Britons feel global warming is now the most important issue facing the country today, compared with 4 percent in 2005.

Politicians appear increasingly aware that green politics may bring in votes. David Cameron, the Conservative leader who cycles to work and is reportedly planning to erect a wind turbine on his home, wants to tax frequent flyers. The Liberal Democrats have long advocated green taxes.

Tony Blair, who is keen to demonstrate tangible effort before he steps down in the summer, on Tuesday called climate change "the biggest long-term threat facing our world." London mayor Ken Livingstone last month announced plans to cut the capital's emissions by 60 percent by 2025.

Britain has also styled itself as an engine for action in the wider European Union, which last week agreed to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

Concrete action, accountability

But despite making the right noises about climate change, Britain's results have been underwhelming. It may be on track to meet its Kyoto target of cutting emissions by 12.5 percent of 1990 levels by 2010. But after falling sharply in the early 1990s, carbon emissions have started rising in recent years, leaving environmentalists fuming that hot air will not be enough to save the planet.