There was a surreal quality watching Hillary Benn being interviewed on the Politics Show this morning. The host was quizzing him on the Climate Change Bill, and the commitment to cut emissions by 60% from 1990 levels. She was asking why the Government weren't going further, and targetting an 80% reduction. What exactly a 60%, not to mention 80%, cut means in the real world was entirely ignored.
To the right is the pattern of UK carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 so far. Between 1990 and about 1993-94 there are significant cuts. This is almost certainly connected to the recession at the time. Carbon dioxide emissions are so intimately connected to economic growth that recessions often lead to reductions. The collapse of Eastern Europe's manufacturing base probably brought emissions down more than any other global phenomenon of the past few decades. We may see emissions reductions right now, when the data comes through in a couple of years time, connected to the current slowdown. The early nineties reduction was also, more importantly, driven by the shift to gas, something that can only be done once and might need to reversed if gas imports are imperilled. One more reason why ensuring energy security and cutting emissions don't necessarily go together.
We haven't cut emissions since 1995. Since 1997 emissions have actually increased by 1.6%. All this fuss over targets, whether binding or not, is pretty meaningless. The actual policies that have been put in place over the last ten years have increased the price of electricity (Ofgem estimate (PDF) that they make up 8% of the average household energy bill), pushed up the cost of motoring, increased the price of family holidays and otherwise cost taxpayers a fortune. Petrol prices have almost doubled since 1995 and, at the same time, emissions have kept on rising suggesting that the elasticities involved are incredibly low.
Despite all of the innumerable policy initiatives and market incentives to reduce energy use emissions have gone up over the last ten years. Clearly, there is some deeper difficulty to cutting emissions that the greens have not acknowledged. People really do need and/or value the activities that create emissions. Emissions probably will fall if fuel prices stay as high as they are but it'll be slow and steady. There is something deeply decadent in coming up with target after target without a plausible solution to these basic issues.
Not to mention the G8's pride in setting targets without the developing economies. Even if the developed economies were to completely decarbonise then, to make a 50% global cut by 2050 from present levels the developing economies would need to make 46% cuts to their 2050 emissions. If the developed economies can only get a two thirds cut by 2050 (very, very ambitious as the graph above shows) then the developing world would need to cut their 2050 emissions by 74% (all these facts are from a White House Council on Environment Quality presentation). This would mean huge sacrifices in economic growth that the developing nations are clearly unwilling to accept.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that these targets do not represent anything but meaningless moral preening.
On another note, over on my personal blog I discuss why the idea that an oil-money conspiracy is keeping the green 'truth' from the people is so deeply wrong.