Blair condemned for 'toothless' approach to climate legislation

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Tony Blair was under intense pressure last night to commit the Government to statutory annual targets for cutting harmful CO2 emissions as part of the first legislation specifically aimed at combating climate change.

Environmental groups and MPs from all parties united to increase their demands on the Prime Minister to outline bold action in the Government's forthcoming climate Bill.

Campaigners warned ministers against producing a "toothless" and "watered down" Bill. Mr Blair has made climate change one of the key priorities of his nine years in office, but he was facing humiliating criticism from all sides for being too weak to promise tougher action.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, stole a march on Mr Blair by publishing his own climate change Bill after the Prime Minister refused to make any commitment when he was challenged in the Commons.

The Conservative climate change Bill would force the Government to produce an annual target for reducing CO2 emissions and create an independent climate change commission to check on progress on cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The Environment Secretary would be required to seek approval for an annual carbon budget report to Parliament.

David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, is understood to have won a Whitehall battle to secure a slot for a climate change Bill in the package of legislation to be announced on 15 November in the Queen's Speech. But it is likely to fall far short of demands for annual targets by environmental groups and MPs.

Downing Street confirmed yesterday that the Government favours long-term targets rather than annual targets. "We think we should have long-term targets because we can work towards those in stages," said the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

One minister who has worked on the strategy said: "We think we can get better results if we set long-term targets. Annual targets can have negative effects, if we don't meet them. But long-term targets encourage people to try harder."

These excuses were dismissed by environmental groups. Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, said 10-year targets were "just not good enough. Long-term targets have failed to deliver in the past and they will fail again. A commitment to legally binding, year-on-year cuts is needed if we are to ensure that every government does its bit to cut emissions."

Environmental lobbyists praised the Conservative Bill, drafted with the help of Zac Goldsmith, a climate change campaigner, saying it was "radical" and "impressive". More than 400 MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for binding annual targets on climate change but Mr Blair left them with little doubt that he would duck that challenge.

Taunted by the Tory leader at Prime Minister's Questions that he would "water down" his Bill, Mr Blair showed little stomach for a fight with big business and domestic consumers of energy who could be faced with higher bills.

Mr Blair said: "You are asking for statutory, binding, year-on-year targets which are very, very difficult to deliver because of the changes that may happen in any one year which would render them extremely difficult to achieve."

He added: "It has also got to be practical and workable and that is why we will make sure any proposals we come forward with we are able to make sure that we get the reductions we need in CO2 emissions. It has also got to be entirely compatible with the interests of business and consumers as well."

Britain's recent record warm months, followed by torrential rains, have highlighted the risks caused by climate change. The pressure for tougher action will be increased on Monday with the report by Sir Nicholas Stern, the head of the government economic service, which is expected to say that action on climate change will cost 1 per cent of GDP, but the bill will be 10 per cent of GDP if the Government does nothing.

Reports yesterday that the draft Bill was going before a cabinet committee were dismissed by ministerial sources. It is understood that the inclusion of a climate change Bill in the Queen's Speech has been agreed in principle but there is still argument over the detail, which is unlikely to be finalised until the new year. Mr Miliband is facing resistance from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury, which are worried about the impact on the economy.

Labour fought the last election on a manifesto commitment to cut Britain's CO2 emissions by 20 per cent, to 1990 levels, by 2010. But when it became unachievable, it quickly focused instead on its other target of cutting emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.

The recession under the Tories and the closure of much of the coal mining industry gave Britain a head start in cutting CO2 emissions but since Labour came to power, CO2 emissions have been going up. Ministers defend their record, saying it is because of economic growth, but the environmental groups accuse Gordon Brown of failing to rise to the challenge of global warming with tougher taxes.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, has announced radical "green" taxes, including raising duty on "gas-guzzling" cars to £2,000 a year. Last night, he attacked Mr Blair for allowing green taxes to fall to their lowest level since Margaret Thatcher's time.

He supported the Liberal Democrat-led Richmond Council after it proposed big increases yesterday in charges for parking permits for the most polluting cars while those with electric cars would pay nothing. Owners of vehicles such as high-performance Porsches and 4x4s would see their annual permit charge rise from £100 to £300.

Policies of the opposition parties

Conservatives

* Committed to a climate change Bill to impose binding annual carbon emission targets.

* Bill would create an independent climate-change commission.

* Environment Secretary would be required to deliver annual carbon budget report for approval by Parliament.

* Still undecided about policy on future of the new nuclear power stations.

* Hinted that green taxes, including on cars, would be imposed to pay for cuts in other taxes for families and business.

Liberal Democrats

* Committed to achieving the Kyoto target of a 20 per cent cut in the UK's CO2 emissions "well before" the deadline of 2010.

* Announced a range of radical green taxes, including increasing vehicle excise duty up to £2,000 for "gas guzzlers".

* Committed to replacing climate change levy with a tougher carbon tax that would discourage the use of polluting fuels and energy sources that are harmful to the environment.

* Would cancel new nuclear power programme.

Green Party

* Committed to 20 per cent cut in CO2 by 2010.

* Introduce a carbon tax based on fuel carbon content.

* Increase energy from renewable resources by 40 per cent by 2020.

* Close nuclear programme.

* Boost public transport by cutting road building and taking rail and Tube systems into public ownership.

The European approaches

France

France regards itself as a leader in the fight against global warming. More than 70 per cent of its electricity comes from nuclear power, rather than fossil fuels. A timetable for French industry and car emissions to adhere to the Kyoto guidelines became law as part of the national climate plan last year. France insists publicly that it will do all it can to hit these targets but officials admit it is unlikely to succeed and environmental groups in France say the country has no chance.

Germany

A powerful Green party has turned Germany into a model when it comes to the environment. The government is committed to ending a reliance on nuclear power - there are incentives thatencourage alternative energy sources. North-east Germany is one of the world's most densely wind-farmed regions. A devotion to recycling, a ban on canned drinks and the legendary rubbish sorting system are the source of jokes.

Italy

The Green movement has taken a while to catch on Italy, where la dolce vita is all too often seen through the haze of pollution caused by fast cars and gas-pumping motorcycles. But the government is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, and recently signed a voluntary agreement with Fiat on curbing the greenhouse gas emissions from cars. It has also introduced a series of laws,to reduce pollution from fossil fuel combustion.

Spain

Spain is striving to catch up on Green matters. Government campaigns urge people to save water, recycle rubbish and use public transport. But the biggest polluters, heavy industry, are slow to adapt, and Spain's Environment Ministry admits laws to cut industrial emissions have been delayed. Amid a construction boom, the government has stopped some projects on environmental grounds and seeks to protect nature reserves.

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