Climate change can be solved in a snap by making oil, gas and coal companies take responsibility for burying all the carbon dioxide emitted by the fossil fuel products they sell, one of Britain's leading young climate scientists said yesterday.
Government attempts to try to get millions of people to change their behaviour through taxes and incentives were doomed to fail, said Dr Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University Oxford, and an increasingly influential voice in the climate debate.
It would be much more efficient, he said, simply to make all producers of carbon-based fuels accountable for the disposal of the carbon dioxide their fuels ultimately give off, as a condition of remaining in business. Successful climate change policy would involve less government, not more.
Dr Allen put his proposal forward in a debate on the politics of climate change at the Sustainable Planet forum in Lyon, the environmental conference co-sponsored by The Independent and the French newspaper Libération, where he was sparring with the former French Environment Minister and leader of the French Green Party, Dominique Voynet.
The three days of presentations and debates have been attended by 27,000 people, with thousands more following online; several of Britain's leading environmental thinkers have taken part, including the former green adviser to Tony Blair, Jonathon Porritt, the former head of Friends of the Earth Tony Juniper, the Government adviser and green analyst Tom Burke, the organic food and farming campaigner Lord Melchett, the green economy strategist Andrew Simms and Britain's first Green MP and leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas.
But it was Dr Allen who put forward the most radical solution to keeping the planet sustainable, by suggesting responsibility for the problem should be taken, not by governments, but by the carbon producers themselves, in disposing of their waste products.
Disposing of CO2 by burying it in the ground, known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), is now regarded as essential for tackling climate change, yet the technology is in its infancy.
Britain is one of the countries leading its development, with four experimental CCS-fitted coal-fired power stations now being planned by the Government, but it may be a decade before it is implemented – and two of those trials could be the victim of cuts.
Dr Allen's contention is that if the big oil companies and other fossil fuel producers were forced themselves to implement CCS – or go out of business – its adaptation would be much quicker and much more widespread, and far more efficient than the current government policy of trying to deal with emissions from millions of consumers.
He told the conference: "Carbon comes into Europe through a couple of dozen pipes, ports and holes in the ground. It goes out through hundreds of millions of flues and exhaust pipes. Yet European climate policy is all about controlling the flow at the point of emission. It's like blowing air into a sponge and trying to slow it down by blocking up the holes."
His proposal is based on the idea of how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere can absorb before global warming reaches the figure of two degrees above the pre-industrial revolution level, which is regarded as the danger level for human society.
World temperatures have already risen to nearly one degree above the pre-industrial, and this rise has been produced, Dr Allen says, by all the fossil fuels which have been burned since then, which has been estimeated at about 500 billion tonnes.
Therefore, he says, we can afford to burn another half-trillion tonnes of carbon before the extra degree of warming is reached – we need to stop using fossil fuels completely by the time we reach the trillionth tonne.
As long as all CO2 is being "sequestered" (buried or otherwise diposed of) by then, the climate problem will be controllable – and this is the time frame the fossil fuel industry has to take care of emissions. The key point is not to start using any of the remaining four trillion tones of fossil fuels which thought to constitute the world's reserves.
Mme Voynet was not comfortable with the idea of taking climate policy away from governments and handing it over to the oil companies.
She said Dr Allen's argument was interesting but the solution was not nearly so simple as he made out. And she said it would be "demobilising" – it would make millions of people feel they had no personal responsibility for the fate of the planet, if responsibility had been handed over to industry.