Save the planet in 10 steps
GUARDIAN / October 30, 2006 06:52 PM
IT IS A TESTAMENT to the power of money that Nicholas Stern's report
should have swung the argument for drastic action, even before anyone
has finished reading it. He appears to have demonstrated what many of
us suspected: that it would cost much less to prevent runaway climate
change than to seek to live with it. Useful as this finding is, I hope
it doesn't mean that the debate will now concentrate on money. The
principal costs of climate change will be measured in lives, not
pounds. As Stern reminded us today, there would be a moral imperative
to seek to prevent mass death even if the economic case did not stack
But at least almost everyone now agrees that we must act, if not at
the necessary speed. If we're to have a high chance of preventing
global temperatures from rising by 2C (3.6F) above preindustrial
levels, we need, in the rich nations, a 90% reduction in
greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. The greater part of the cut has to
be made at the beginning of this period. To see why, picture two
graphs. One falls like a ski jump: a steep drop followed by a shallow
tail. The other falls like the trajectory of a bullet. The area under
each line represents the total volume of greenhouse gases produced in
that period. They fall to the same point by the same date, but far
more gases have been produced in the second case, making runaway
climate change more likely.
So how do we do it without bringing civilisation crashing down? Here
is a plan for drastic but affordable action that the government could
take. It goes much further than the proposals discussed by Tony Blair
and Gordon Brown today, for the reason that this is what the science
1) Set a target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions based on the
latest science. The government is using outdated figures, aiming for a
60% reduction by 2050. Even the annual 3% cut proposed in the early
day motion calling for a new climate change bill does not go far
enough. Timescale: immediately.
2) Use that target to set an annual carbon cap, which falls on the
ski-jump trajectory. Then use the cap to set a personal carbon ration.
Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He or
she spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and
plane tickets. If they run out, they must buy the rest from someone
who has used less than his or her quota. This accounts for about 40%
of the carbon dioxide we produce. The rest is auctioned off to
companies. It's a simpler and fairer approach than either green
taxation or the EU's emissions trading scheme, and it also provides
people with a powerful incentive to demand low-carbon technologies.
Timescale: a full scheme in place by January 2009.
3) Introduce a new set of building regulations, with three objectives:
A. Imposing strict energy-efficiency requirements on all major
refurbishments costing £3,000 or more. Timescale: in force by June
2007. B. Obliging landlords to bring their houses up to high
energy-efficiency standards before they can rent them out. Timescale:
to cover all new rentals from January 2008. C. Ensuring that all new
homes in the UK are built to the German passivhaus standard (which
requires no heating system). Timescale: in force by 2012.
4) Ban the sale of incandescent lightbulbs, patio heaters, garden
floodlights and other wasteful and unnecessary technologies. Introduce
a stiff "feebate" system for all electronic goods sold in this
country. The least efficient are taxed heavily while the most
efficient receive tax discounts. Every year the standards in each
category rise. Timescale: fully implemented by November 2007.
5) Redeploy the money currently earmarked for new nuclear missiles
towards a massive investment in energy generation and distribution.
Two schemes in particular require government support to make them
commercially viable: very large wind farms, many miles offshore,
connected to the grid with high-voltage, direct-current cables; and a
hydrogen pipeline network to take over from the natural gas grid as
the primary means of delivering fuel for home heating. Timescale: both
programmes commence at the end of 2007 and are completed by 2018.
6) Promote the development of a new national [bus] coach network. City
centre coach stations are shut down and moved to motorway junctions.
Urban public transport networks are extended to meet them. The coaches
travel on dedicated lanes and never leave the motorways. Journeys by
public transport then become as fast as journeys by car, while saving
90% of emissions. It is self-financing, through the sale of the land
now used for coach stations. Timescale: commences in 2008; completed
7) Oblige all chains of filling stations to supply leasable electric
car batteries. This provides electric cars with unlimited mileage: as
the battery runs down, you pull into a forecourt. A crane lifts it out
and drops in a fresh one. The batteries are charged overnight with
surplus electricity from offshore wind farms. Timescale: fully
operational by 2011.
8) Abandon the road-building and road-widening programme, and spend
the money on tackling climate change. The government has earmarked
£11.4bn for new roads. It claims to be allocating just £545m a year to
"spending policies that tackle climate change". Timescale:
9) Freeze and then reduce UK airport capacity. While capacity remains
high there will be constant upward pressure on any scheme the
government introduces to limit flights. We need a freeze on all new
airport construction and the introduction of a national quota for
landing slots, to be reduced by 90% by 2030. Timescale: immediately.
10) Legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and
their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system. Shops use a
staggering amount of energy (six times as much electricity per square
metre as factories, for example), and major reductions are hard to
achieve: Tesco's "state of the art" energy-saving store at Diss in
Norfolk, has managed to cut its energy use by only 20%. Warehouses
containing the same quantity of goods use roughly 5% of the energy.
Out-of-town shops are also hardwired to the car - delivery vehicles
use 70% less fuel. Timescale: fully implemented by 2012.
These timescales might seem extraordinarily ambitious. They are, in
contrast to the current plodding pace of change. But when America
entered the second world war, it turned the economy around on a
sixpence. Carmakers began producing aircraft and missiles within a
year, and amphibious vehicles in 90 days, from a standing start. And
that was 65 years ago. If we want this to happen, we can make it
happen. It will require more economic intervention than we are used
to, and some pretty brutal emergency planning policies (with little
time or scope for objections). But if you believe that these are worse
than mass death, then there is something wrong with your value system.
Climate change is not just a moral question: it is the moral question
of the 21st century. There is one position even more morally culpable
than denial. That is to accept that it's happening and that its
results will be catastrophic, but to fail to take the measures needed
to prevent it.