February 20, 2004
by Dennis T. Avery
The British government—a firm believer in global warming despite the chilliest winter in recent memory—is about to wager a good portion of the Exchequer in support of its "true green" belief.
On January 20, Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged a massive cut in British emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses: a whopping 60 percent less CO2 by 2050, with a quick 20 percent cut over the next six years.
The reductions would voluntarily take the United Kingdom well beyond its obligations under the Kyoto treaty on climate change and require attendant slashes in energy use that likely would send the nation into a prolonged economic depression.
Blair is taking a bold risk—not just for his own reputation—but for the long-term viability of his Labour Party as well. If Blair keeps his pledge, Britain will be the first modern economy to put it national economy on the line to comply with Kyoto.
The U.S. and Russian governments have refused to sign the Kyoto treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, because they doubt the science behind it and fear that its constraints will more than double energy prices to consumers and businesses. China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia—the fastest growing emitters of greenhouse gasses—are exempted from Kyoto's provisions because of their developing nation status.
Blair, however, is willing to make Britain a huge, real-world experiment testing whether massive reductions in greenhouse emissions can be cost-effective. He brushes aside all skeptics, insisting he can do it the "green" way, through increasing energy efficiency and by producing more "renewable energy" from solar and wind power.
Britain has already cut its CO2 emissions about 8 percent in the last decade, but achieved that by substituting its abundant and cheap North Sea natural gas for smoky coal produced with high U.K. labor costs.
"While Kyoto was an enormous achievement, it is simply not enough," says Blair. He notes that global emissions of greenhouse gases have risen 10 percent since 1990, with a 35 percent increase in developing countries. And he concedes, that even under the best scenario, “Kyoto will mean a reduction of two percent in emissions."
Until now, the famous Kyoto treaty has been little more than a chat room. No signatory country has yet made any painful cuts in its greenhouse gas output.
The Kyoto emission cuts demanded before 2012 look modest: 5.2 percent from 1990 levels for the world, 7 percent for the U.S., and 12.5 percent for the U.K.
Advocates are claiming that Kyoto will cost only "one percent of a country's GDP." However, the Kyoto emission cuts to 2012 are so small they would make no measurable difference in the projected growth of greenhouse gases.
Moreover, the U.S. might have to give up 60 to 80 percent of its oil and coal consumption even to meet the 2012 targets—and replace the fossil fuels with solar and wind power that currently cost several times as much. Electricity prices could well double, with gasoline prices up 25 percent.
David King, Mr. Blair's chief scientific advisor, recently admitted in the journal Science that Kyoto restrictions will have to be radically increased to stabilize world greenhouse emissions. Critics of the treaty say "ten Kyotos" might not be enough.
Environmental groups claim that Kyoto will increase economic growth and create jobs. Nevertheless, the U.K. is committing itself to a huge capital investment, which will take off-line most of its power plants and force major redesign for most of its motor vehicles—just to keep the energy level it has now. Hundreds of thousands of British jobs could be lured to non-Kyoto countries with lower energy costs.
Meanwhile, China, which is not bound by the treaty, has become the world's second largest oil user.
Germany is installing its biggest solar power facility to date with 33,500 panels; but it will provide enough power for only 1,800 homes—and that only when the sun is shining. Denmark recently cut back its wind turbine program because of the high electricity costs and because much of the wind wattage is produced at night when the Danes don't need it.
Mr. Blair has left Britain one safety valve: His White Paper on cutting CO2 emissions makes no mention of adding nuclear power plants—but it does not rule them out.
Even so, the biggest Kyoto question remains: is the current 150-year warming trend man-made or natural. Not even the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has scientifically linked today's temperatures to higher CO2 levels—relying instead on worst-case scenario projections from dubious computer models.
Meanwhile, the tree rings, ice cores, and stalagmites tell of warming in Medieval and Roman times and little ice ages as recently as the mid-nineteenth century—all part of a historic, erratic 1,500-year global warming/cooling cycle linked to variations in the sun's activity.
It would indeed be cruel if Blair's vision for a brave, new greener world eventually condemns Britons to enduring their nation's cold, damp winters by scrounging for lumps of coal like the threadbare characters in a Charles Dickens novel.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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