It’s the environment

29 Sep 06
PETER RIDDELL | The green moment might at last have arrived.

The green moment might at last have arrived.

For more than two decades, environmental issues have been low down the list of the public’s priorities in opinion polls and politicians have behaved accordingly. Party leaders might have acknowledged the seriousness of global warming — and the Blair government has a solid record in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But they have seldom highlighted green issues during election campaigns. The Liberal Democrats are the exception.

The Green Party has, of course, put climate change at the heart of its appeal. But, while it has achieved gains in local elections, it has never won, nor come remotely near winning, a seat in the House of Commons. It is essentially a pressure group with a few councillors.

However, the Tories and Labour — as well as the LibDems — are now putting green issues at the heart of their political appeals, as has been clear during this autumn’s party conferences. Blair acknowledged this in his own conference speech, saying that environment and energy were not even on the agenda in 1997.

But the most striking example has been David Cameron, symbolised by his ‘huskies’ trip to Norway to visit the Arctic Circle. Being green is vital to the Tories’ efforts to modernise and appeal to younger people.

The government’s emphasis has changed since the appointment last May of David Miliband as environment secretary. Miliband, top of everyone’s list as the next Labour leader but one, highlighted green issues as ‘the ultimate test’ for his department when setting out his priorities.

He drew a parallel with the movement for social welfare in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that led to the birth of the trade unions, the creation of the Labour Party and reforms to protect workers and the welfare state. We need a similar response in the twenty-first century, he said, ‘to address the environmental costs of industrial development — an environmental contract that will have the same effect on our institutions, norms and values as the social contract of the past century’. Like the Tories, he sees the political and electoral prize of winning the backing of a green movement at present uncommitted to any of the major parties.

If all three of the main parties are now talking green, what does this mean in practice? The government combines efforts to agree an international consensus on stabilising climate change with domestic policies on energy, transport and housing to lower carbon emissions. The Energy Review in the summer attracted attention mainly because of the revived interest in nuclear power — fiercely contested by the green lobby — but it also included fresh measures, including an expansion of renewable sources, to cut emissions in 2020 by up to a quarter below 1990 levels.

The government wants to set an example in its own use of energy and procurement. But the trickiest question is changing the behaviour of businesses and individuals. Energy-intensive companies are already part of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and there are proposals to extend this to other large businesses and public sector organisations.

Brown’s Labour Party conference speech, his job application to be prime minister, gave much greater emphasis than before to green issues. The Treasury is about to produce a report on the economics of climate change, while the chancellor has called for the World Bank and other countries to create a $20bn global fund to provide alternative energy for poorer countries.

The LibDems have offered a detailed package of green taxes as part of a shift away from taxing income to taxing energy consumption and wealth. Among its ideas is linking vehicle excise duty to the level of pollution by a vehicle, resulting in a big increase for large-engined 4x4s, and replacing the present airport departure tax by a duty paid on each commercial aircraft leaving from a British airport. Incentives will be introduced to cut emissions and to encourage combined heat and power schemes to reduce waste energy.

The Conservatives have been less specific. Peter Ainsworth, the shadow environment secretary, has accepted the case for fairer and greener taxes, but not higher taxes. He argues that taxation is just one way to make environmental costs clear to consumers. Other options include prohibition, regulation and, particularly, the greater use of market mechanisms. Cameron backs the replacement of the present climate change levy with a new carbon tax. But the framework would be tax-neutral, hitting higher emission activities with higher levies, while cleaner processes would pay less.

Expect a lot more in this vein as all the main parties intensify the battle for the green vote in the run-up to the next general election. The green mantle will be claimed by the blue, red and yellow parties.

Peter Riddell is chief political commentator of The Times and author of The unfulfilled prime minister — Tony Blair’s quest for a legacy

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