TCS Daily

Not So Cool Brittania

By Craig Winneker - April 6, 2005 12:00 AM

As usual, Tony Blair finds himself on the horns of a political dilemma: the whim of public opinion leads him one way, and reality struggles to pull him in another.

Bruised and battered in the polls from his support for the US-led invasion of Iraq and for a European constitution, the UK prime minister has latched onto climate change as a way to boost his standing with the electorate. Blair now promises to make reduction of greenhouse gases -- a euphemistic phrase that really means "make people use less energy" -- the number-one issue on the international diplomatic stage. That there are other more pressing issues -- global terrorism, killer diseases, poverty reduction, to name just a few -- seems not to matter to him.

(And, in true Blair fashion, he has managed to hedge his bets. "If the science is right, then not immediately, but growing over a period of time - certainly over 30-40 years, well within the life-time of my kids, this is going to be a major, major issue," he said in a television interview in February. If the science is right? That's a flimsy peg on which to hang international diplomacy and the global economy.)

Some recent developments on the emissions-reduction front are revealing -- and frightening. First was the convocation last month in London of a Round Table, at which environment ministers from all over the world met to discuss post-Kyoto emissions-reduction strategy. As everyone, including the Kyoto Protocol's most fervent supporters, admits, the treaty will do little if anything to reverse global warming trends by the time the sun sets on its provisions in 2012. So this particular Round Table gathered to launch a quest for a longer-term goal even more elusive than the Holy Grail: massive cuts in emissions that will make Kyoto pale in comparison.

Then, later in March, EU environment ministers essentially ratified this idea, proclaiming their intention to reduce emissions by as much as 80 percent by the year 2050. Forget Kyoto -- and forget Lisbon while you're at it.

You'd think European leaders would be concerned about how they will ever achieve their professed desire to create "growth and jobs" and not looking for new ways to hamstring economic development by requiring deep cuts in energy use. But the day the Kyoto Protocol took effect, February 16, witnessed an outpouring of pious observance more suited to a new religious holiday than what will eventually prove to be a footnote to a dubious policy achievement.

In the weeks since that dizzying day it has become clear that even if Kyoto doesn't mean much in and of itself, it represents the thin end of the wedge.

The problem of course is that while environmentalists are calling for more action and politicians are making promises, few people are actually living up to the current treaty's provisions. Just this week comes word that the UK will miss its Kyoto targets. In fact, the country's emissions last year were 1.5 percent higher than in 2003, and according to the BBC are now higher than at any time since the Labour government took power in 1997.

The reactions from environmental activists to this news were predictably ominous. "The policy package they have isn't working," said a Friends of the Earth campaigner. "They need to make radical changes to it, a completely different approach, much more top-down management of emissions across the economy."

Now there's a thought chilling enough to combat global warming all by itself. But even more revealing was the response from Blair's government. It blamed the rise in emissions on growing energy demand. Growing energy demand goes hand in hand with a growing economy. Nevertheless, Blair pushes such anti-growth ideas as energy taxes. At a conference in Melbourne this week, his minions will try to convince other governments to make energy-reduction a top priority.

This, the newspapers and the environmental activists say, will require much more than Kyoto. When the treaty took effect the French paper Libération called it "one small step for diplomacy, but one giant leap for humanity". However it warned that Kyoto is a document "from which we should expect no miracles". Rather, it is "a first step.... Another future is conceivable."

What will that future look like? Well, perhaps if the editors of Libé -- and the anti-automobile Mayor of London and the cataclysmists who gathered in Melbourne this week and perhaps even the UK prime minister himself -- have their way, it will be very cold indeed. In fact, forget the French 35-hour week (which was enshrined as part of Europe's cherished social model and a bulwark against unemployment). Why not go to a ten-hour work-week? If no one is working, nobody commuting, no factories operating, there are fewer emissions. Or how about 52-weeks of vacation? Many former members of the German and French workforces are already on this energy-saving plan. It is going wonderfully for them, and even comes with monthly checks. Never mind that the next generation won't be able to get the same deal.

Yes, these ideas are absurd, but they are probably more realistic than the ones soon to be emitted from the brains of Blair and Co. The UK prime minister is about to learn another tough political lesson: Talk is cheap. Cutting emissions is expensive.


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