It's easy to be in the lead when fate gives you a head start.

It's easy to be in the lead when fate gives you a head start.

The British government, to its credit, is volunteering to push well past the advantage of its lucky jump against other countries in cutting emissions of greenhouse gases under the as-yet unratified Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

But UK officials should quit crowing about "leading the way" on climate change and instead take a look at the shaky science behind their calls for higher taxes, new patterns of energy use, and other forms of sacrifice.

"Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge we face today," declared British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott this week when he outlined his government's plans for addressing climate change.

"The flooding in Mozambique and China, the hurricane in Honduras, and last year's devastation in France are just the latest examples of extreme weather which scientists predict will become more common with global warming."

Whoa. When politicians start extrapolating from isolated weather events to long-term climate trends, the scientists they cite should hide their heads, and the taxpayers they govern should hide their wallets.

Suffice it here to say that Prescott does not proceed in his characterization of the alleged problem from a firm footing in climate science. What seems most compelling to the deputy minister is his country's favorable standing in relation to others.

"We promised to lead the fight against climate change, and we are delivering this promise," Prescott declared in his appeal to European Union members to ratify the Kyoto Protocol as soon as possible.

He has room to boast. The UK has surpassed the EU-wide goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 8% from 1990 levels by 2010 and possibly its own goal of 12.5%.

But the country had help from assignment of 1990 as the Kyoto baseline. In that year, the UK was still burning a lot of coal. Since then, privatization and the end of coal subsidies have changed things. Electricity generators and industries have largely switched to natural gas, combustion of which releases much less carbon dioxide than that of coal.

According to US Energy Information Administration data, British coal use plummeted from 2.72 quadrillion btu (quads) in 1990 to 1.4 quads in 1998, while gas use rose from 2.12 quads to 3.28 quads. During the same period, emissions of CO2 from consumption and flaring of fossil fuel fell in the UK to 227.5 million tonnes of carbon equivalent from 269.36 million tonnes.

So, yes, with a 15.5% reduction in CO2 emissions, the UK is certainly leading the way in cuts of the volumetrically most important greenhouse gas. But the achievement results from belated change in fuel use patterns destined to occur anyway.

Prescott proposes to take emission reductions beyond levels already achieved-to 21.5% for all greenhouse gases and 20% for CO2. That's generous and ambitious. But with coal use and CO2 emissions both still trending downward, the UK should have relatively little problem, especially in view of taxes already planned.

So the deputy minister evangelizes.

"Developed countries have an obligation to take a lead," he declared. "Climate change results from our actions of the past, and we must lead the way in dealing with the consequences."

In truth, climate change might well have very little to do with human actions of the past and much to do with natural phenomena over which humans have minuscule influence. Scientists remain most unsure on that point.

But try telling that to a politician on a self-righteous roll.

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