The Guardian (UK)
By Larry Elliot and Ashley Seager
The human rights of the world's poorest people will be violated unless Britain and other developed countries accept the need for drastic and immediate steps to prevent global warming from triggering dangerous climate change, the United Nations warned last night.
Calling for urgent action on a post-Kyoto agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, the UN said the risks of "ecological catastrophe" were rising and called on the west to adopt policies that would cut carbon emissions by almost a third by 2020, and by at least 80% by 2050.
Kevin Watkins, editor of the near-400-page human development report, said at its launch in Brazil that climate change was about more than science or economics. "It is about social justice and the human rights of the world's poor and marginalised. Failure to act on climate change would be tantamount to a systematic violation of the human rights of the poor."
The report is critical of all developed countries for their performance so far on cutting emissions. But it singled out the UK government for failing to show enough ambition in its plan to combat greenhouse gases, citing the upward trend in emissions from the energy and transport sectors and the lack of progress in developing renewable sources of energy.
The international development secretary, Douglas Alexander, said: "This report highlights the scale and urgency of the problem.
"The effects of climate change will hit the world's poorest hardest. If we don't tackle climate change now, we will struggle to help the world's poor build a better life for themselves and their children."
While praising the government for a "bold and innovative" climate change bill that would legally bind ministers to mandatory cuts in emissions, the UN said "radical new policies" such as carbon taxes, tougher regulations to phase out coal-fired power stations and higher vehicle excise duty for gas-guzzling cars would be needed if Britain was to have any chance of hitting its target of cutting CO2 emissions by 26%-32% by 2020. There were "serious questions about the level of ambition, and about the UK's capacity to meet its own carbon reduction targets".
The report comes barely a week after Gordon Brown said Britain was committed to the European Union target of a 20% cut in carbon emissions by 2020 and a 20% use of renewables for energy by the same date. In the summer the Guardian uncovered government documents saying the 20% target was unachievable and ways should be found to undermine it at a European level.
The UN report said that "Britain also lags far behind best EU practice on renewable energy: it currently produces only 2% of its overall energy from renewables."
Climate change has moved up the political agenda in Britain, with the government seeking to find ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions without harming the economy's growth prospects. Ministers believe that a mix of energy sources, including nuclear and renewables, will be needed in the future and that greater fuel efficiency in aviation can offset the impact of the expansion of Heathrow.
The UN report criticised the government for excluding shipping and aviation from the UK's target. Taken together, the UN said, the two sources of greenhouse gases would increase the UK's carbon budget by 27% by 2050, cancelling out half the planned 60% reduction.
"Emissions targets in the climate bill are not consistent with the objective of avoiding dangerous climate change," it said. "If the rest of the developed world followed the pathway envisaged in the UK's climate change bill, dangerous climate change would be inevitable." The outcome, the UN said, would be greenhouse gas concentrations rising to 660 parts per million to 750ppm by 2050, giving possible global temperature increases of 4-5C, well above the 450ppm and 2C temperature rise that experts say warming must be kept within.
The report said that the UK was on track to meet its Kyoto protocol targets because emissions are 5% lower than in 1990, the base year. But it says all the reductions were achieved before 2000. Now coal consumption in power generation is rising again and carbon emissions have been increasing since 2000.
"The upshot is that the national target of reducing CO2 emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2010 is unattainable; the likely outcome is a reduction less than one-half this target," it said.
The report said the UK should phase out highly polluting power stations and rapidly increase the use of renewable energy, particularly wind and tidal power, and consider higher fuel taxes and vehicle excise duty as a way of curbing the use of heavily polluting cars.
It also said that energy use in British homes remained "highly inefficient", with the average house using four times as much energy as new ones. This offered a big opportunity for carbon reductions, it added. "Rising emissions from transport also reflect weaknesses in the public transport infrastructure and a decline in the cost of private transport, relative to public transport."
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