If new Labour eschewed red in favour of purple for the final days of its campaigning ahead of the election that swept Tony Blair to power, the colour that will increasingly reflect the party’s policy in office is green. The environment is back on the political map in a major way.
Blair signalled the elevation of environmental concern to the top of his administration’s agenda in his statements and actions at two recent summits of world leaders. First, in Denver at the Group of Seven meeting of leading industrial powers and, more forthrightly, at the “Rio plus 5” Earth Summit in New York that followed hard on its heels.
It would be easy to dismiss the Prime Minister’s keynote address to the United Nations as a typical example of the well-meaning but platitude-laden statements politicians are wont to make on such occasions. Easy but wrong. To do so would, I believe, be to mistake the seriousness of Blair’s intent and his commitment to secure results in this field.
His remarks have struck a markedly personal note that underlined the importance he is giving to green issues. Referring to his own children, whose privacy he normally prefers to protect, the Prime Minister said that since he took office they had complained he was never at home. Then he added: “But if there is one summit they would want me at, it is this one.”
This comment makes explicit not only Blair’s determination to act in the world’s environmental arena but his recognition of the “greening” of electoral politics. He has perceived the damage current patterns of consumption are inflicting on the world’s ecology, and the requirement to limit if not end that damage, are now questions in the mainstream of political life. They lie at the heart of ordinary people’s concerns. And Blair is nothing if not a politician who reacts to popular concern.
Blair has already moved from a green message to green measures, taking steps which give practical expression to his words in New York. He promised “significant” steps and the first of these have been taken in Gordon Brown’s Budget with larger than previously planned rises in road fuel duty and tax incentives for energy savings insulation. Only the Chancellor’s cut in VAT on domestic energy from 8% to 5% – fulfilling a manifesto commitment – sat uneasily with green commitment.
Blair has also set tough targets for future action and, risking relations with the US, has demanded it and other polluting industrial nations respond with similar action. Britain is now signed up to cutting emissions of carbon dioxide, the gas principally responsible for the greenhouse effect, to 20% below their 1990 levels by 2010. That goes beyond the already ambitious 15% target set by the European Union.
It is testimony to the importance green politics is given with the Government that the department whose reins were handed to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is that in charge of environment and transport policy.
Prescott also chairs the key cabinet committee on the environment. Contrast this with the isolation and sidelining which was the fate of John Gummer, Major’s environment secretary and the greenest man in the last government.
The new deputy premier has already staked out his own green agenda, unilaterally wielding the axe over Britain’s road-building programme and making clear he intends to bring about a shift away from the car and towards the use of public transport for both passengers and freight.
In a wide-ranging speech to mark World Environment Day, Prescott announced a fundamental transport review that will lead to publication of a white paper in the spring. Road space for cars may be rationed and plans to create express corridors for buses through our city centres are to be considered. Some of the previous government’s de-regulation of buses will be undone. Privatised or not, Railtrack is being told in no uncertain terms that it had better raise its current levels of investment in the network.
In the immediate future, British companies will have to face up not only to higher costs for fuelling vehicles but to the implications of higher taxes both on large-engined cars and on car-parking perks for staff. Further down the road lie motorway tolling, and possible road pricing in cities.
Prescott spelled out what we can expect: “Tax is not a popular word,” he said. “But environmental taxes can encourage industry to find cost-effective, innovative ways of reducing pollution.” He added that “green” taxes can be especially attractive when they raise revenue that can be used to reduce other taxation or can be recycled in other ways, so that they offer a “double dividend”.
It looks like we can expect to see more and more in the way of green taxes in the years ahead, applied in tandem with tougher regulatory controls to clean up the world around us. The principle that the polluter pays will clearly impose costs on business and it would be well-advised to prepare, both by taking pre-emptive action to pursue best practice in minimising its impact on the environment and by planning to foot the bill where cleaning-up is hard to do.
But industry probably has little need to fear a sweeping extension of green taxes by a government cynically seeking extra revenues. Simply put, the yield from effective green taxes should dwindle to zero as the levy persuades those paying to switch to away from the taxed, polluting practice to clean and untaxed one.
Moreover, in the long-term it seems reasonable to argue that the economic dividend from a cleaner and healthier environment in which to live and work will deliver real gains to corporations as much as to individuals.
Of course, there is now and always will be a trade-off between economic growth and the pursuit of a greener world. And it is at the interface between the two that politicians must play their role.
So far, much environmentalism has been an easy ride. It is not difficult to recycle one’s bottles and newspapers or to support saving the rainforests.
But tougher messages and measures are still to come that will test the fickleness of public opinion. People may favour an end to traffic congestion but are they prepared to abandon their own car for the bus? In general, can our car-loving, energy-guzzling, consumption-driven society reconcile itself to its green aspirations? There are difficult choices to be made.
What has changed is that this is an agenda which is no longer the preserve of bearded fanatics ranting on the fringe. It is an agenda we must all confront.