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Climate change, CO2 emissions and moving targets – Discussion paper

There is now a consensus that climate change, caused largely by rising man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), has begun to occur. The CO2 emissions result primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels to meet our energy needs. In 1990, the 300 scientists on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated that, to stabilise the CO2 composition of the atmosphere at its 1990 levels, global emissions would need to be drastically reduced. In the seven years since this prediction, estimates of CO2 emissions in the UK to the year 2000 and beyond have been constantly changing, and similarly targets for reductions are being constantly revised.


The first commitment to tackling the problem of climate change in the UK came in May 1990, when, in response to the IPCC forecast, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher committed the UK to the ‘very demanding target of a reduction of up to 30% in projected levels of CO2 emissions by 2005. This would mean returning emissions to their 1990 levels by that datei’ . The White Paper, ‘This Common Inheritance’ stated that, ‘Keeping CO2 emissions to no more than 1990 levels by 2005 will mean important changes in the way we use energy in industry, to heat and light our homes, for transport and for other purposes. If nothing is done, energy consumption in Britain will grow substantially over the next 15 yearsii‘ . The target was based on projections published in October 1989 in Energy Paper 58. Under the ‘business as usual’ scenario, CO2 emissions were projected to increase by 35mtC by 21% between 1990 and 2000.

1992 – Rio

Just prior to the June 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio De Janeiro, the Government announced a more demanding target. This committed the UK to returning emissions of CO2 to their 1990 levels by the year 2000. By October 1992, however, the Government had produced Energy Paper 59, which contained new projections for energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Instead of CO2 emissions growing by 35 mtC by 2000, these projections posited that this growth would be only 10 mtC (or 6% over the 1990 base year). So the new target was in fact much less ambitious than the original.

1994-5 – Action Programme

In January 1994, the Prime Minister launched the Government’s Climate Change Strategy. This outlined precisely how the revised 10mtC target would be achieved.
In March 1995, the Government again revised its projections for CO2 emissions. Energy Paper 65 projects no rise in emissions at all between 1990 and 2000. This implied that the UK would achieve its target without further changes to ‘business as usual’. The change in projections is caused primarily by the reduction in the use of coal for electricity production following privatisation of the electricity industry. The subsequent ‘dash for gas’ greatly reduced CO2 emissions. The then Environment Minister, John Gummer, called on all developed countries to reduce their overall ‘basket’ of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (CO2, nitrous oxide and methane) by 5-10% by 2010 from a 1990 baseline.

In a Government report published in 1997, revised projections show that the UK will achieve a 6-7% reduction in its ‘basket’ of greenhouse gases by 2010 purely on the basis of existing measures . In early March 1997, the UK firmly committed itself to a 10% reduction in its ‘basket’ of GHG emissions at a meeting of EC Environment Ministers – not a very ambitious target based on the latest report’s projections.

1997 – A New Government

Later this year, the new Labour Government made a bolder move and committed the country to a reduction in CO2 emissions of 20% by 2010 from a baseline of 1990. This is ambitious given the projected rise in emissions beyond 2000 (and will be made more challenging by the party’s plans to support the coal industry).

1997 – Kyoto

In December 1997, an historic agreement was reached by developed countries to cut emissions of the six main greenhouse gases by 6% below 1990 levels by between 2008 and 2012. The UK’s target under this agreement is to achieve a 12.5% reduction, but the present Government remains committed to its 20% CO2 reduction by 2010.

Changing projections

In the course of just over 7 years (from 1990 – 1997), therefore, the Government has produced four different projections of CO2 emissions and five different reduction targets. Although the target for reducing CO2 emission has been constantly increased, it becomes apparent that when compared to the forecast, only Labour’s recent commitment to a 20% reduction in CO2 by 2010 can be considered ambitious, although there is no guarantee that this target will be achieved.

Year Key events Change in forecast Change in target
1989 21% rise 1990 – 2000 No target established
1990 IPCC predicts drastic cuts in CO2 emissions required to maintain 1990 levels Return CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2000
1992 Rio Conference – FCCC agreed 6% rise 1990 – 2000 Return CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2000 (FCCC)
1995 0% rise 1990 – 2000 Call by UK to reduce ‘basket’ of GHG emissions by 5-10% by 2000 based on 1990 levels
1997 Labour government elected in UK 6% drop 1990 – 2000(1% rise 1990 – 2010) 10% reduction in ‘basket’ of emissions by 2010 (March)20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2010 (May)
1997 Kyoto agreement 6-7% reduction in ‘basket’ 1990 – 2010 7% reduction in ‘basket’ of emissions by 2010 (December, legally binding target)

The Way Forward

In December 1997, parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change meet in Kyoto, Japan, to discuss targets for the emission of greenhouse gases beyond 2000. If there is to be any hope of tackling the threat of climate change, it is vital that the UK Government sticks to its target of 20% and pushes other developed countries to follow its lead. In addition, if the 20% target is to be achieved, a great deal more work must be done on the three areas identified by Labour as being key to combating climate change, namely increasing energy efficiency, encouraging the development of renewables and reducing reliance on cars.

i Text of a speech made by the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher FRS MP at the opening of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, 25 May 1990.
ii UK Government, 1990, This Common Inheritance – Britain’s Environmental Strategy, HMSO, London.


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