U.K. Shows Off Its Climate-Change Plan This week, the United Kingdom unveiled a new proposal to set legally binding limits on carbon emissions. Will the plan inspire the U.S. to follow suit?

U.K. Shows Off Its Climate-Change Plan

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow.

Earlier this week, the British government proposed new legislation aimed at setting limits on carbon emissions. The Climate Change Bill, which hasn't yet been passed, would be the first legislation from an industrialized country to set long-ranger limits on carbon emissions.

The bill calls for emissions to be reduced by 60 percent by the year 2050. That's far beyond what the Kyoto agreements call for. Joining me to talk more about the proposed bill is my guest Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. He's on the line from Arlington, Virginia. Thank you for talking with us today, Dr. Diringer.

Mr. ELLIOT DIRINGER (Director of International Strategies, Pew Center on Global Climate Change): My pleasure.

FLATOW: Why is this legislation significant.

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I think this proposed bill is the latest and one of the strongest indications of the political will emerging in Europe generally and in particular in the U.K. to keep pushing further with the effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and address climate change.

And it is intended quite deliberately as a message to the United States and to other industrialized nations that it is necessary to reduce emissions much further than has been agreed to thus far.

FLATOW: And why the Brits first?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I mean this is not something out of the blue. In Britain there has been, for some time now, broad public and political support for strong action to address climate change. Prime Minister Tony Blair really has been at the forefront internationally in pushing for stronger action, and his government has been promoting strong policies within the U.K. for some time now.

I mean, among the industrialize nations, really, the U.K. is already well ahead of Most of the others, they have managed to reduce the emissions about 70 percent - seven percent, I'm sorry - in the past 10 years at a time that their economy was growing 24 percent.

FLATOW: Give us some details about what the legislation would do.

Mr. DIRINGER: well, I mean the U.K. government under Prime Minister Blair has articulated this type of goal before as a matter of policy, and what they're now proposing to do is to put this into law, make it the law of the land, and that provides a legal foundation for then legislating the actions that would be necessary to reduce emissions by that 60 percent by 2050.

It also would mandate reductions of 26 to 32 percent by 2020. So it - as you said, it's the first - it would be the first long-term legal framework actually mandating those reductions.

FLATOW: And what kinds of actions would we see coming from a bill like this if it were passed?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, it would require quite a range of actions, frankly. Now as a part of the European Union, a lot of the policies that would deliver on that kind of commitment actually would come out of Brussels because there are a lot of climate-change policies set at the E.U. level, the most significant of those being the E.U. emissions trading scheme, which was launched in 2005, which limits carbon dioxide emission from about 10,000 power plants and factories across Europe.

So that will be a big part of any U.K. strategy to achieve its goals, but the U.K. already has in place taxes, renewable energy targets, efficiency standards, a range of other policies that are delivering reductions now, and we'll have to explore basically any and all means to push that further.

One of the things they are looking at is establishing their own emissions tradition system within the U.K. that goes further, reaches further into the U.K. economy than the E.U. system would.

FLATOW: So the E.U., would it be behind the U.K. then?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, the announcement out of London actually came right on the heels of another announcement from the European heads of state last week. They declared a unilateral commitment. In other words, the European Union is saying that it is prepared to reduce its emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, even if there is no further international agreement.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, their commitment is to go eight percent below 1990 by 2012, so they're now saying we're prepared to go 20 percent below on our own by 2020. They're also saying they're prepared to go further, maybe 30 percent below, if the other industrialized countries would sign on to that.

I don't think we're going to see the other industrialized countries agree to a reduction of that level. But again this is a very strong indicator of the kind of the kind of political will that seems to appear at this moment in Europe.

So the U.K. goal goes out further, to 2050. So I wouldn't necessarily say that - in the time span, certainly the U.K. bill goes further, but it's on the same order of reduction that is being proposed across the E.U. in the 2020 timeframe.

FLATOW: Can any set of laws, whether it's for the E.U. or for the U.K., really address the problems about emissions if China is not brought in to agree to some of these things?

Mr. DIRINGER: No, absolutely not. I mean, the bulk of the emissions, historically, have come from the developed world, the United States, well at the front of the pack. But in a matter of a decade or so, developing countries will be producing the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, and there really is no way that we're going to get a handle on climate change unless we come up with some sort of international framework that also brings in China and India and the other emerging economies, and commit them to the kinds of actions needed to reduce their emissions.

FLATOW: Do they show any inclination to jump on this bandwagon?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, you know, this is a negotiation, and it was agreed at the state of this negotiation, back in '92, that the developed countries should take the lead. Europe, I think, is delivering on the that; the United States has not yet. So you're not going to see the developing countries standing up and waving their hands and saying yes, we're ready to take on commitments.

That said, there have been very interesting indications from China, in particular, over the last couple of years, which suggest that A, it recognizes that climate change is a real concern for China in terms of the potential impacts; B, that it recognizes that addressing climate changes creates economic opportunities for China; and C, that it's open to discussing future arrangements that would be to the advantage of China.

FLATOW: You know, oneā€¦

Mr. DIRINGER: So I think there is some promise there.

FLATOW: You know, one would believe, with the Olympics coming to China and considering how polluted the air is in China for these athletes and how they're going to have to basically shut down the factories for a month to clean up the air, and all the press and the media focus on China at that time, that they would view this is as, you know, something that they have to take care of.

Mr. DIRINGER: well, I think China recognizes that as it assumes a higher profile on the global stage, this is one of the issues that it's going to have to come to terms with. I mean, it can get through the Olympics without putting in place the kinds of long-term measures that really are going to be needed to deal with climate emissions.

But I think you're right. The attention will certainly help. I think, you know, one thing that's not very well recognized at all here in the United States is that China actually has in place already a lot of policies that do help moderate its greenhouse gas emissions. I mean, they have an energy intensity goal across the economy to reduce their energy intensity by 20 percent by 2010.

They have fuel economy standards for their cars that are actually more stringent than those of the United States. They have aggressive renewable energy targets. So they're doing things now that certainly help us deal with climate, but we need to see much, much more there and here, too.

FLATOW: The Kyoto Agreement expires in 2012. Do you expect a different type of treaty to take its place?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I sincerely hope there will be a treaty to take its place, and I think that if we do have one, it will have to be different than Kyoto. Kyoto basically allows for one type of commitment. Basically, to take on a commitment under Kyoto, you agree to a limit on your emissions across your economy, and that's a type of commitment that is working for Europe and I think potentially works for the United States, but it's not going to work for the developing countries, at least for the foreseeable future.

So you need to have a more flexible type of treaty that allows different countries to take on different types of commitments that fit their specific circumstances.

FLATOW: And you know, what's interesting that's developing in this country is now you have businesses who see the handwriting on the wall, asking the government to help out to set some standards because they know that they want to compete, they're going to have to start, you know, worrying about carbon taxes themselves.

Mr. DIRINGER: Quite clearly. I mean, we've seen dramatic political shift on this issue, and certainly in the last couple of months since the election and a Democratic takeover of Congress. But even before the election there was strong growing momentum here in Washington to begin looking at mandatory climate efforts, and a lot of that is, you're right, driven by a recognition among business - especially forward-thinking business - that this is an issue that has to be dealt with, and they'd rather deal with it in a way that works for them than have constraints imposed on them.

I mean, just within the last couple of weeks you've seen the TXU deal - the largest takeover ever of a Texas electric utility. And as a condition of that deal, in order for the investors to buy in, TXU had to agree to drop plans for eight of 11 coal-fired power plants it was planning to build. Earlier this week in Congress, the heads of the four automakers were testifying, and all of them said they were ready to accept the mandatory climate bill. So this is - the politics of this issue are shifting quite rapidly.

FLATOW: Well they realize they can't - they can't move forward in the dark, right? They need some sort of guidance.

Mr. DIRINGER: They need some guidance. They know its coming soon. They know the constraints or coming sooner or later. They'd rather it be sooner so they have some certainty going forward. And many of them, frankly, see some opportunity in this - companies that see a market in low-carbon technologies and are positioning themselves to fill that market.

FLATOW: We've seen Silicon Valley, you know, moving away from the silicon and putting the silicon at the solar collectors.

Mr. DIRINGER: Absolutely, so I think for businesses it's partly a calculation of risk and reducing risk, and it's partly a matter of seeing opportunity and trying to seize that opportunity. I mean, you know, some people suggest that a few years down the road it actually may be China that's leading the global economy on low-carbon technologies, and that's not a very unrealistic scenario. I mean, as China has pushed aggressively to expand its use of renewable energy, it's been careful to make sure that a large portion of that technology is indigenous. They're quite deliberately growing in indigenous industry on renewable, and at some point they'll be exporting that. And unless we get going and really devote ourselves to this effort, we may well see ourselves out-competed by China on these technologies.

FLATOW: And in the few seconds I have remaining, you expect this legislation to move forward to get passed - adopted in Great Britain.

Mr. DIRINGER: Well they've set a target to have it in place in about a year, and I think that since this is a proposal of the sitting labor government, and that assuming the labor government is still in place a year from now, I'd make a pretty safe bet.

FLATOW: Well Elliot Diringer, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Mr. DIRINGER: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Elliot Diringer is director of International Strategies for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. We're going to take a break and come back and talk about something that's been on the mind of a lot of people, perhaps on your mind. Maybe you have teenage children, daughters, who are thinking about the HPV vaccine. Should you take it? Are you upset with the government forcing you to do it? Would you rather decide on your own? All those issues for you to discuss. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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