UK climate change policies 'dangerously optimistic'

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The UK government’s policies are significantly stronger than those of the Canada and the United States – but scientists say they still have only a 50-50 chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees

by Felicity Carus
UK Guadian, June 23, 2009

A leading UK climate scientist today warned MPs that the government’s climate change policies are “dangerously optimistic”.

Professor Kevin Anderson, the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said the government’s planned carbon cuts – if followed internationally – would have a “50-50 chance” of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2C. This is the threshold that the EU defines as leading to “dangerous” climate change.

Anderson also said that the two government departments most directly involved with climate change policy, were like “small dogs yapping at the heels” of more powerful departments such as that run by the business secretary, Lord Mandelson. He said that the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc), run by Ed Miliband, should be given more power.

Anderson was speaking to MPs on the environmental audit committee as part of an inquiry into the UK’s carbon budgets. These are legally binding caps on emissions set over five years by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the independent body set up to advise the government on how big the cuts should be.

In April, the CCC’s proposed cut of 34% by 2020 relative to 1990 levels was adopted by the chancellor in his budget, making Britain the first country in the world to pursue legally binding emissions reductions. The CCC hopes that the government will adopt a higher intended budget (a 42% reduction in emissions by 2020) within the next two years, once a global deal on climate change has been agreed. But Anderson said that the UK should show leadership before the Copenhagen summit and raise the target to 40% now.

The top scientist’s criticism will come as an unwelcome distraction to Decc ahead of the release of its “road to Copenhagen” strategy document on Friday. This will lay out what the government hopes to achieve at the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December and why the meeting is so important. The report will be accompanied by a dedicated website and online video.

But Anderson said that without more ambitious action he feared that a significant deal at Copenhagen would not be achieved. “No one I talk to thinks there is going to be anything significant to come out of Copenhagen,” he said.

“We are going to come out and recover the deck-chairs in preparation for moving them as the Titanic sinks. We’re not even at the stage of rearranging them,” he added.

He criticised CCC’s carbon budget because it failed to adequately factor in emissions from food, deforestation, aviation and shipping and the manufacture of goods for the west.

Anderson said a commitment to a 40% cut by 2020 would help to press other countries into a stronger deal on a successor to the Kyoto protocol. “It would send a much stronger message at Copenhagen that we need those levels of cuts,” he said. “After 2020 you’re looking at completely decarbonising the global system. It would take a vertical drop in emissions after 2020 if we have any chance of meeting the 2050 target.”

David Kennedy, the chief executive of the CCC, said: “The CCC set a 2050 emissions reduction target guided by the latest scientific research and comprehensive climate modelling across the full range of emitting sectors and gases. The target, together with deep cuts from other developed and developing countries, is designed to keep global mean temperature increase as close to 2C as is practically possible. The carbon budgets are designed to put the UK on a pathway to the 80% target and to meet the climate change objective”.

Anderson praised politicians for taking on the science of climate change. But accused them of letting policy be driven by political expediency rather than science. He compared Decc and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), to “small dogs yapping at the heels” of more powerful departments such as the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and the Treasury. He said the Treasury should be “dancing to the tune of Decc”.

A spokesperson for Decc said: “The UK will be pushing for the most ambitious deal possible at Copenhagen. At home we’ve taken the CCC’s advice and have set a legally binding target to achieve at least a 34% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions against 1990 levels by 2020, consistent with our share of the EU 2020 target. We’ve already said that we’ll look again at tightening our carbon budgets once an international agreement has been achieved.”