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Britain introduces sweeping climate-change bill

March 13, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

UK politicians aim to lead the world on long-term carbon cuts.

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The British government today revealed its draft climate bill, which sets out plans for a 60% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. The bill makes Britain the first major economy to lay out a comprehensive scheme for making wholesale greenhouse-gas reductions.

The legislation, like the international Kyoto Protocol, will measure emissions against their 1990 levels. But the new plan will go far beyond the scope of Kyoto, which seeks to ensure an average 5.2% cut among developed-world nations by 2012.

Unveiling the new policy in London and in an online video address, British environment minister David Miliband said: "This will constrain every future UK government to ensure that carbon emissions do not exceed certain levels."

The bill was previewed by the Queen at a parliamentary ceremony in November 2006 (see 'Britain aims to take lead on aggressive carbon cuts'). The draft proposal will now be opened to public consultation, with a finalized bill being presented to the British parliament this autumn.

Cool cuts

The plan will involve setting five-year targets for emissions reduction, called 'carbon budgets'. These targets should see Britain cut its carbon emissions by between 26% and 32% by 2020 — exceeding the 20% cuts agreed by many European nations at a summit last week. The United States has no federally mandated emissions targets, although some individual states have set goals.

It is not clear exactly how the UK targets will be met, although the government has pledged to invest in energy efficiency, home power-generation schemes, renewable-energy technologies, and increased carbon trading. Miliband stressed that individuals will be able to make a difference: "In the end, this isn't something that governments and businesses can do alone," he said.

Future British governments charged with delivering the cuts will report to an independent 'carbon committee', and could face legal action if targets are not met.

Opposition British politicians, however, have argued that the proposed policing of the cuts is not strict enough. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have called for the government to replace the five-yearly targets with annual deadlines. But the government argues that such a system will not work because weather fluctuations can cause temporary rises in year-on-year emissions.

Some experts say that the proposals will only succeed if Britain commits to building new nuclear power stations. "Nuclear power has been conspicuous by its absence from many commentaries on how to achieve emissions cuts. Without it, emissions will rise, not fall," says Ian Fells, chairman of the New and Renewable Energy Centre near Newcastle, UK.

Taking the lead

Other critics of the plan argue that, with carbon emissions from developing economies such as India and China set to rise massively in the coming decades, there is no point compromising British economic growth to achieve emissions cuts that will be wiped out by other countries.

Miliband responds that "it is vital that advanced industrialized countries take a lead, and it's also important that we use that leverage to ensure that countries seeking development, quite rightly, have a choice — the choice to choose a low-carbon path rather than to repeat the mistakes of developed countries."

This role of spearheading international climate policy is one that British politicians and scientists are keen to take on. Commenting on the proposal, Dave Reay, a geoscientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, said "it is fitting that the land of Hooke, Boswell and Locke may once again play host to a movement that shapes the future of human civilization".

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