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For a while I have been concerned that the emissions reduction policies which have been enacted or proposed so far might be problematic.

In particular, I am referring to those policies which target end-users of fossil-fuel burning technology, either by taxing them or adding cost to their use of the technology. Charging more road tax or higher parking fees for 4×4’s and SUVs; Adding a levy to air flights; promoting low-wattage energy-saving lightbulbs, improved domestic insulation, more recycling.

To what extent is this an effective way of reducing the emission of Carbon Dioxide? Each of these may make some contribution to the overall figures, assuming they involve a large enough proportion of the population, but how much? Are these actually CO2-reduction policies, or ‘environmental’ ones? And how do they fit into the bigger picture.

Here is the most recent UK summary of CO2 emissions, and here is the USA-based EIA report. What do they tell us? First off, they look at emissions by end-user. In the DEFRA report, they then go on to give emissions by source. If we want to know ‘where is the CO2 coming from?’, this is the important information.

Carbon dioxide emissions by source:

million tonnes (carbon dioxide equivalent)








Road transport 109 111 116 118 119 120
Energy industries 236 199 191 208 207 208
Other industries 114 107 109 100 98 99
Residential 79 80 86 86 87 83
Other (mainly commercial & public sectors) 51 52 48 45 45 46
Total (excluding LUCF) 589 549 549 556 557 556

Carbon dioxide is the main man-made contributor to global warming. The UK contributes about 2 per cent to global man-made emissions, which are estimated to range between 22.8 and 25.3 billion tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Carbon dioxide accounted for about 84 per cent of the UK’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions in 2005.

In 2005, 37 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions were from energy industries, 22 per cent from road transport, 18 per cent from other industries and 15 per cent from residential fossil fuel use. Since 1990, emissions from the energy industry have reduced by 12 per cent and other industrial emissions reduced by 14 per cent.

Since 2004 however emissions from the energy industry have risen by 0.9 per cent and other industrial emissions increased by 0.6 percent whilst domestic emissions have fallen by 4.6 percent.

Remember, ‘Road Transport’ is both personal and commercial, car and freight/distribution; less than half of the 22% is emitted by all the cars we drive in the UK; 15% (and going down 4.6% in two years) from our homes. Total emissions for we which can be claimed to be the source: 25% or less. Which means 75% comes from somewhere – someone else. 55% from Energy generation (Power stations) and other industries (like cement production); about 12% from commercial and freight transport, and the rest from ‘other’.

Is it beyond the realms of logic to suggest that, if the UK, US or any other government intends to regulate in order to cut emissions, that the objects of this regulation should be the primary sources of CO2? Put another way, a 10% reduction in emissions from power stations (3.7% of the total) over ten years is the equivalent of a 37% cut in private vehicle emissions; or a 25% cut in household power. As the number of businesses involved in the production of these emissions is small, especially in relation to the number of cars or homes in the country, regulation is much more easily enforceable and easier to monitor.

So why is there no much-publicised plan to reduce CO2 emissions from energy generation? Could it be because, with oil prices rising, and gas (and oil) provision being dependent on imports from other countries, and with prices set to continue on a rising curve indefinitely, the cheapest way to provide power is by using coal-fired power stations? Like the 150+ that are planned for Texas over the next few years. Why would it matter that prices are kept down; who stands to benefit? Not the end-user. In addition to the extra tax burden and the pump price hikes of recent months, energy providers are constantly increasing their charges by an annual rate higher than the underlying inflation rate anyway, so the end-user is already paying any extra cost. So where does the benefit of lower costs go? To the shareholders and investors. To the Treasury. To the people who already hold the majority of the wealth and political authority.

This is not Democracy in which we live, here in the UK or the USA; it is a Plutocracy, a state in which the short-term interests of the wealthy take precedence over the long-term interest of the entire planet. If we lived in a Democracy which wanted to reduce CO2 emissions, would we be seeing the policies that currently exist?

The message here is simple: yes, the climate system is at risk of being changed for the worse because of CO2 emissions. No, it isn’t our fault – not us, the end-user, the taxpayer, the car driver or holidaymaker. The risk comes from energy production and industry. The fault lies with the infrastructure which lies at the heart of a developed economy, and with the investment and shareholding system which underlies our commerce and our comfort. It is not an easy thing to change the way in which we work, especially when the values which matter are purely economic and fiscal, and not ethical or social. It is not an easy thing to move the balance of power away from an inequitable hierarchy towards a more genuinely Democratic distribution of wealth, whilst avoiding spiralling inflation, recession or shifts in international power-dynamics. But, if there is any hope of actually preventing CO2 emissions from reaching levels which lead to the worst of the predicted outcomes in the next hundred years, then this is what will have to be done, somehow.

Politically, this is the challenge for our coming generation. To learn and put in practice a new principle of action in the world, that no nation is an island, and the whole is infinitely more significant than each individual part which comprises it.

Be loved, be hopeful.


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April 2007