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Britain unveils 'global first' bill to cut CO2 emissions

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The new climate bill would set five-year carbon budgets against which governments can be judged, just as they can for fiscal budgets. A new statutory body, the Committee on Climate Change, is expected to be made up of eight scientific experts who will advise the government on staying within its carbon budget.

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Failure to hit the targets would be ill-advised for any government, an official said. "Any government will be under political pressure to stay within the budget so as not to breach a legal duty under the bill," the official said under customary condition of anonymity. "The government would be liable for judicial review," he adds.

Conservatives want more

Government opponents and environmentalists gave a cautious welcome to the bill, but said that it needed to go further. The law will now pass through several months of consultation and redrafting (it won't become law until early next year) and lobbyists and opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are expected to press for even tougher measures.

The Conservatives are pushing for higher taxes on frequent flyers to address the problem of aviation emissions, which are largely ignored by the climate-change bill because aviation is considered an international affair that requires a multinational deal.

"We have to reflect the cost of carbon emissions in the cost of what we are paying today," says Conservativeshadow environment secretary Peter Ainsworth. "We are paying today's price, which does not reflect the cost to our children and grandchildren."

Some environmentalists, meanwhile, are insisting on deeper emissions cuts, of 80 percent, by 2050. Friends of the Earth wants the government to report back annually to Parliament, rather than every five years, as outlined by the climate-change bill.

A five-year reporting period, says Elliott, "takes you over the term of office for the average government." Some administrations may be tempted, when more pressing needs arise, to ignore climate change, knowing that it would be up to the next government to account for it.

Focus on household energy efficiency

So how will the targets be met? Gordon Brown, expected to take over from Blair as prime minister this summer, said a huge difference could be made by concentrating on domestic households, which produce 25 percent of the nation's emissions. He said that 8 million homes needed proper insulation; low-energy light bulbs are to become a requirement by 2011. Standby lights on appliances should be phased out, he added.

In London, Mayor Livingstone has already targeted motorists through his congestion-charge plan, but his new scheme also focuses on domestic energy use: He is offering subsidies on insulation, advice on helping households reduce their carbon footprints, and support for a high-efficiency form of localized energy generation known as combined heat and power.

But the Tyndall Centre's Professor Anderson warns that "the scale of the problem is not going to be dealt with just by the home sector or just by aviation. All sectors are going to have to see significant reductions."

Personalized limits

He is pressing for "personal carbon budgets," a credit card-style system of allocations that people would spend like money.

"It would give people the choice of how to make their reductions," he says. "I could still fly to the US if I lived in an efficient home. Someone else might prefer to use their car but give up their flights."

This may prove to go too far, however. Despite growing concern about climate change, many Britons fret that the country cannot make a difference on its own.