Friday 16 June 2000



As a contribution to global efforts to prevent climate change running out of control, the United Kingdom should plan for a reduction of 60% over the next 50 years in the amounts of carbon dioxide it produces by burning fossil fuels. This is one of the key conclusions of a major report published today by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The report - Energy The Changing Climate - explores what that will mean for industry and ordinary households, and how government policies need to change.

Speaking at Westminster this morning, the Chairman of the Royal Commission, Sir Tom Blundell, said: 'Recklessly causing large-scale disruptions to climate by burning fossil fuels will affect all countries. It is the poorest that would suffer most. We cannot expect other nations to do their part in countering this threat least of all if they are much less wealthy unless we demonstrate we are really serious about it.'

The UK has already played a leading role in international negotiations, and the Royal Commission thinks it can, and should, continue to do so. The amounts of carbon dioxide the UK emits are now significantly lower than in 1990, but much of the progress so far has been fortuitous.. The Commission welcomes the government's goal of a 20% reduction from the 1990 level by 2010 as a major step in the right direction. It recommends that this should become a firm target, but expresses doubts whether the measures at present proposed will achieve it. The UK lags far behind many other European countries in developing the renewable energy technologies that will become much more important in future, and in the very inefficient ways heat is supplied to homes.

The primary purpose of the report is to look much further ahead than the UK's draft Climate Change Programme. The Commission highlights the difficulties there will be in maintaining a 20% reduction beyond 2010, let alone making much larger reductions. It emphasises the need to start now on making reduction of carbon dioxide emissions a key factor in the planning and design of power stations and buildings of all types, many of which will still be in use in 2050. Ways have to be found of achieving sustainable solutions within liberalised energy markets, in which the emphasis has so far been on minimising price per unit in order to maximise sales of energy.

At the moment, use of energy, predominantly in the form of oil, gas or coal, is continuing to increase, both worldwide and in the UK. The Royal Commission has investigated:

  • the scope over the next 50 years for replacing fossil fuels by expanding the UK's use of renewable energy sources, such as wind power, solar energy and energy crops. Their use will have to expand to well beyond the 10% of electricity generation which the government has suggested as a target for 2010
  • whether nuclear power could be part of the solution. Nuclear waste will first have to be dealt with to the satisfaction of the scientific community and the general public. People are unlikely to accept new nuclear power stations unless they are part of a strategy that also delivers radical improvements in energy efficiency and an equal opportunity for deploying renewable energy sources that can compete in terms of costs and reduced environmental impacts
  • the potential for reducing the large losses within the energy system, especially the large amounts of heat wasted at power stations the potential for industry, households and motorists to make much more efficient use of energy
  • the possibility that some of the carbon dioxide produced when fossil fuels are burnt could be recovered and piped safely away into geological formations under the seabed.

To show the scale of the changes required to achieve a 60% reduction in UK carbon dioxide emissions, the Royal Commission describes four scenarios for 2050 representing various combinations of these approaches. It emphasises that these scenarios are illustrative. But all of them involve a reversal of the previous trend of growing energy use, and in three of them the total amount of energy used would have to be much less than today.

Some of the scenarios might involve significant changes in lifestyles. All involve constructing many new energy installations, with resulting impacts on the environment. The challenge climate change poses for the world is so fundamental however that a complete transformation in the UK's use of energy will be an essential part of an effective global response.

The Royal Commission's report makes 87 recommendations. Many of them are addressed to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to the government at Westminster. Among the 19 key recommendations are:

  • a long-term programme to cut considerably the energy used in buildings of all types
  • creation of a Sustainable Energy Agency to boost energy efficiency in all sectors and link that to the rapid development of renewable energy sources a tax on fuels that give rise to carbon dioxide emissions (preferably Europe-wide), replacing the government's planned energy tax on industry and business
  • using the resulting revenue to reduce fuel poverty, as well as boost new and more sustainable technologies
  • a fundamental review of the financing, management and regulation of electricity networks (like the national grid), in order to encourage renewable energy sources and combined heat and power plants, serving whole neighbourhoods or even individual houses

Quadrupling government support for energy-related research and development to bring it in line with the present EU average. Government expenditure on R & D fell by more than 80% between 1987 and 1998, and private sector spending appears to have fallen too.

Sir Tom Blundell said: 'Energy policies must command public assent and be compatible with an improving quality of life. If UK industry is to remain competitive, it has to shape up to the very different world that lies ahead. We also have to overcome the particular UK problem that, because of inadequate insulation, several million people cannot afford to keep their homes comfortably warm in winter.' He added: 'The problems are complex and there are no easy answers. We hope the analysis and recommendations in our report will begin the wide debate that will be essential if the UK and the whole world community are to rise successfully to the radical challenge that climate change is now posing.'


The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is an independent body, appointed by the Queen and funded by the government, which publishes in-depth reports on what it identifies as the crucial environmental issues facing the UK and the world.

The Royal Commission's reports are presented to Parliament. Energy the changing climate is its 22nd report, and is the outcome of a major study, announced in August 1997, which reviewed energy prospects for the 21st century and their environmental implications. It focuses on the need to reduce considerably over the next 50 years the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, as part of global efforts to prevent climate change running out of control.

The report offers 19 key recommendations (pages 199-200) and 68 other recommendations (pages 201-207). The following list provides pointers to where some of the most significant topics are dealt with in the text of the full report:

The need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions: The report warns that increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, will have serious impacts on the world's climate (Chapter 2, paragraphs 2.27-2.35). It concludes that there is a moral imperative to act now to curb emissions (Chapter 4, paragraphs 4.18-4.20), and proposes that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere should not be allowed to exceed 550ppmv double the level prior to industrialisation (Chapter 4, paragraphs 4.32-4.34).

Future international agreements on climate change: The Royal Commission supports the concept of 'contraction and convergence' as the best basis for future international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This concept would entitle citizens of every nation, wealthy or poor, to emit the same quantities of climate-changing pollution. There should, however, be an adjustment period in which the per capita emissions of developed and developing nations converge on the same level (Chapter 4, paragraphs 4.47-4.50). The UK would have to reduce its emissions by 60% by 2050 (Chapter 4, paragraph 4.51 and table 4.1). National quotas calculated on the basis of contraction and convergence should be combined with international trading in emission permits (Chapter 4, paragraphs 4.53-4.54).

Why the UK should act: Climate change can only be tackled by effective world-wide action. But the UK must continue to show leadership in global efforts to combat climate change. By adopting convincing long-term strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the UK and EU can strengthen the prospects that other developed and developing nations will also sign up to future climate change agreements (Chapter 4, paragraphs 4.55-4.70).

The government's draft Climate Change Programme: The report assesses the likely effectiveness of measures set out in the government's draft programme (Chapter 5, paragraphs 5.46-5.60). It suggests that they may be insufficient to deliver the government's goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from their 1990 level by 2010.

The need for a carbon tax: The Commission argues that the government's climate change levy, which will tax downstream use of energy, should be replaced by an upstream tax on the carbon content of fuels (Chapter 6, paragraphs 6.155-6.169). Such a carbon tax which would preferably be introduced at a European level would apply to all sectors. The first call on the revenues from the tax should be to reduce fuel poverty, with the remainder being used to boost energy efficiency, develop alternative energy sources and reduce adverse impacts on UK industrial competitiveness (Chapter 10, paragraphs 10.25-10.32).

The future of nuclear power: All but one of the UK's nuclear reactors will close within 25 years. Within five years, the government should set out how it intends to prevent this from causing an increase in emissions of carbon dioxide (Chapter 10, paragraph 10.12). New nuclear stations are not indispensable in delivering long-term emission reductions energy efficiency measures, renewable energy sources and capture and disposal of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel-fired power stations could all be viable alternatives. No reactors should be built until the problem of radioactive waste management has been solved to the satisfaction of both the scientific community and the general public (Chapter 7, paragraphs 7.11-7.19 and Chapter 10, paragraph 10.29).

A Sustainable Energy Agency: The Commission sees considerable scope to improve arrangements to promote energy efficiency and the development of renewable energy sources. It recommends that a new Sustainable Energy Agency be set up to co-ordinate the task (Chapter 10, paragraphs 10.44-10.48).

Changing housing: The report calls for a wide range of action to reduce the energy used in domestic housing. Measures would include higher energy efficiency standards for new housing; energy efficiency programmes for existing housing, particularly aimed at reducing fuel poverty; measures to promote district heating networks; greater use of heat pumps, solar water heating and combined heat and power plants; and improvements in efficiency of electrical appliances (Chapter 6, paragraphs 6.70-6.106).

Transport: The Commission welcomes the government's Transport White Paper, which set out policies in line with many of the recommendations in its 18th and 20th reports. But it is disappointed at slow progress in implementing the measures required to curb traffic growth and regrets that successive governments have not devoted more of the revenues from the fuel duty escalator to developing alternatives to car use (Chapter 6, paragraphs 6.107-6.128).

Transforming the electricity grid: The electricity grid needs to be transformed to accommodate much greater number of small-scale, local generators, many using renewable energy sources and many feeding into district heating networks. Many of these plants will have intermittent or unpredictable output. The electricity distribution system will need to undergo major changes to cope with these developments (Chapter 8, paragraphs 8.42-8.64).

Research and development: Government spending on energy-related R&D has fallen sharply the UK spends less as a proportion of GDP than almost any other developed nation (Chapter 5, paragraphs 5.61-5.62). This trend must be reversed if we are to develop new energy systems to counter the threat of climate change (Chapter 10, paragraphs 10.53-10.66).

Energy use in 2050: Chapter 9 of the report offers four illustrative scenarios showing how the UK could cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 60% by 2050. Each scenario puts different emphasis on the role of energy efficiency measures, renewable energy sources, and large power stations using nuclear power or fossil fuels. In the latter case, emissions of carbon dioxide would be captured and disposed of in geological formations under the sea bed.

The need for a long-term strategy: Chapter 10 of the report explains why a long-term strategy is needed to deal with the threat of climate change. It draws together many of the report's findings to set out a vision of what such a strategy might contain.

Energy the changing climate is available from the Stationery Office (Cm 4749, price 27.00), or the full text of the report can be downloaded free of charge from the Commission's website. Because the Commission believes the issues raised are of concern to everybody, it has produced a free summary of the report, and is sending this to every secondary school, public library, university and college in the United Kingdom. This summary is also available on the Commission's website. Up to 10 copies of the printed version can be obtained without charge from Rosemary Ferguson (tel: 020 7273 6637, fax: 020 7273 6640, e-mail:


Press enquiries are being handled by Nick Schoon: tel: 020 7273 6643, e-mail

--------------------------------------------------------------------------- -----