To shamelessly pinch a Mikado song title from Gilbert and Sullivan, there’s a bit of a how-de-do going on in Britain at the moment. The UK Government has been saying for some time that the nation must significantly reduce its carbon footprint. In 2003, it pledged to reduce the country’s 2050 emissions of carbon dioxide by 60% and has hinted this target might be increased further. As part of the country’s long-term aim to achieve major reductions, the Government recently announced that it would increase the tax on fuel by 2 pence a litre (the first since 1999) and raise the excise duty on high-emission vehicles by £200. From these new initiatives on fuel and vehicles, the UK Government is estimated to raise somewhere on the order of £2 billion. Wouldn’t it be great if this was actually used to make a greener Britain? Unfortunately, with oil hitting $135 a barrel and the fear that production has peaked, the country is feeling the high costs of UK living on the back of a credit crunch and a slowing economy. There is a real sense that change is in the air and it’s not for the better.
Recent surveys suggest around one-third of UK drivers have reduced how much they use their cars. This is good news. People are burning less oil and as a result, our carbon emissions are going down. It’s likely this trend will continue. Research in North America shows high gasoline prices can make a significant dent in emissions; a $1 per gallon rise in the price of gasoline in the USA could result in a 14 per cent reduction in the use of fuel over the long-term. Yet, the UK Government seems to be in a tail spin over recent developments, not helped by recent polling results that suggest it’s the least popular government since records began in 1943. The newspapers of the last few days have been full of hints these new increases in fuel tax and excise duty might be scrapped. In addition, there are new incentives to increase North Sea production and rather bizarrely pour yet more money into nuclear power. This would be a disaster for a country struggling to make the change to a greener future. Rather than do a U-turn, the Government should be more bold in their green initiatives and actually give a vision for the future that people can believe in. It doesn’t have to be bad news. This could be just the opportunity we need to start the transition to a low-carbon economy rather than just tinkering around the edges.
The bottom line is we live a high energy lifestyle. We need to start reducing the amount of energy we use. Rather than take the current environment as a political disaster, could the situation we face today be a breathtaking chance to turn a corner? The Government is raising a heck of a lot of money that could actually be used to do some good and move us away from our dependence on fossil fuels.
There are a huge number of visionary ideas that could be used to make the transition to a greener life. It would be great to see some political leadership on all this. George Monbiot’s wonderful book Heat and Dave Reay’s Climate Change Begins at Home give fantastic overviews of what we can do. In the short term, transportation is the key political issue. Why not use the cash to encourage more regular and frequent public transport? More buses, trains and trams would not only reduce the number of vehicles on our roads but also our use of oil. This isn’t rocket science when you consider oil is running out and getting more expensive. If services were so much more reliable, it wouldn’t seem the chore that common perception has it. Public transport would just be the hassle-free, cheap and logical choice. Alongside this, why not use the money to start a national campaign to educate the public about the science of climate change and the risks we face. If people understand what’s involved they’re more likely to accept the changes that need to be made. Longer term we need alternative energy sources. The Earth has an estimated recoverable amount of oil totaling three trillion barrels; the Sun delivers the equivalent energy in 1.5 days; the amount of energy we use as a species over a year on this planet is delivered by the Sun in just one hour. There are alternatives. We just seem to have tunnel vision at the moment and are fixated on fossil fuels.
Let’s be the model of a very modern nation and seize the day.