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Constraining the low-carbon future

Richard Black | 16:00 UK time, Monday, 1 December 2008

After becoming the first nation in the world to adopt "legally-binding" targets on greenhouse gas emissions last week, the UK claims another world first today with the publication of draft "carbon budgets" replete with advice on how those targets should be met.

HybridAs far as I can see, the government's new advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, hasn't said much that you wouldn't have predicted from a working knowledge of the science and the government's views on the issue.

But the scale of reductions it's recommending in greenhouse gas emissions is still striking, as my colleague Roger Harrabin reports - at least a 20% cut within 12 years.

The committee thinks that can be done without closing airports or scrapping all coal-fired power stations or implementing a bicycles only policy for the school run.

As I have detailed here, substantial changes in electricity generation are the strongest recommendations, and they are clearly going to be challenging if the government decides to adopt them.

Reactions from think-tanks and environment groups have generally been positive, although there are some areas of dissent, notably over coal-fired electricity generation - the committee says building new stations without carbon capture and storage (CCS) should be permitted, on the understanding that they would have to adopt the technology by about 2025.

There is also some concern that the UK's share of international aviation and shipping aren't included in the five-yearly carbon budgets.

Anyway, details apart - for those you can refer to Roger's news article or my analysis piece as indicated above, or indeed to the report itself - what difference will the committee's recommendations make to the life of the average Briton?

Well, first you have to assume that the government endorses them - which it probably will - and then turns the vision into reality, which is less certain.

Fuel prices will rise, that is for sure; and that will push more people, perhaps as many as 1.7 million, into fuel poverty.

While this will not be pleasant for anyone concerned, you can argue that it's refreshing to hear government advisors admitting openly that tackling climate change does mean making certain things more expensive.

Perhaps more of us will choose electric when we buy a new car in 2020 - as many as 40% of us, according to the committee's chair Lord Turner. We'll have bells and whistles on them to alert pedestrians and prevent accidents as we glide along.

Logically, more of us should live in well-insulated houses, take public transport or cycle, inhale cleaner air and use electricity rather than gas to heat our homes and cook.

The committee thinks we will be a poorer country, but not by much.

But that is all in the realm of "if" at the moment. The government will release its official response by the middle of next year - perhaps approving carbon budgets at the same time as its more familiar fiscal budgets - and then we see more clearly where this low-carbon road is taking us.

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