Ecological disaster looms but how green will the politicians ever be?

Unfortunately, there are so many vested interests that whatever action is taken it will never go far enough
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The Independent Online

In the spring of this year, months before the fuel protesters flexed a single muscle, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, faced a dilemma. Aware that petrol prices were going through the roof, he wanted to stop the fuel escalator, the mechanism that led to annual increases in fuel duty. He knew such a move would please the motorist, but was worried about the reaction of the green lobby. After all, this government had made much of its green credentials.

In the spring of this year, months before the fuel protesters flexed a single muscle, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, faced a dilemma. Aware that petrol prices were going through the roof, he wanted to stop the fuel escalator, the mechanism that led to annual increases in fuel duty. He knew such a move would please the motorist, but was worried about the reaction of the green lobby. After all, this government had made much of its green credentials.

Several meetings took place involving Mr Brown, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and the Transport minister, Lord Macdonald. Mr Brown's senior adviser, Ed Balls, also worked with Treasury officials in an attempt to find a solution. With characteristic political panache, they cracked it.

In his March Budget, Mr Brown announced the end of the fuel escalator, to cheers from motoring organisations. "A Budget for motorists!" declared one spokesman at the AA, a verdict conveniently forgotten amid the September chaos.

But in the same Budget, the Chancellor announced that any future increase in fuel duty would be earmarked for improvements in public transport. Mr Prescott, a fan of earmarked taxes, was delighted. So were some environmental organisations, believing it heralded a radical shift in taxation policy.

There was, though, a catch. The Treasury is notoriously wary of earmarked taxation. Mr Brown himself is not a great fan. Nor is Tony Blair. But Mr Brown was able to assure the sceptics in the Treasury - and himself - that further increases in fuel duty were not on the cards. If anything, the opposite was the case. Contrary to all the hysteria about Mr Blair and Mr Brown being out of touch, they knew months ago that high petrol prices were causing them political difficulty. At the very least they were not going to exacerbate the situation by increasing duties. Mr Brown had announced a "green" taxation policy, knowing it was unlikely he would ever use it.

Fast forward to last week's pre-Budget report. This time, of course, the Chancellor had no doubts about the fury of motorists and hauliers. Again, he wanted to act in a way that appeared to be environmentally sound. Again, he squared the circle by reducing fuel duties on low-sulphur petrol while making it clear that all motorists would be using the fuel when the reduction came into effect.

Only this time Mr Brown's green credentials have been called into question rather more quickly than when he announced his clever wheeze in March. Some environmental organisations have said that while the new petrol will improve air quality, cheaper fuel will mean greater use of cars. Others suggest that this type of petrol actually increases the amount of CO 2 emissions being pumped into the environment.

In interviews, ministers have struggled to portray these measures as part of the Government's green agenda. Privately, they do not even bother. One of the more elevated government insiders, someone who does not usually dirty his hands in the politics of spin and tactics, put it like this: "For a government, if it's a question of saving your skin, or acting in a way which may contribute in some small way to saving the planet in the future, you take the policy that saves your skin."

In a nutshell, that is the huge, almost overwhelming constraint in the politics of the environment. Often, the green solutions are unpopular in the short term. Voters will notice their impact only long after a government has left office.

Even the Liberal Democrats, a party that sometimes portrays itself in a greenish light, puts electoral calculations before its policies for the environment. Many of its MPs represent rural constituencies where voters are dependent on cars.

Most of the time the Conservatives do not even affect a great concern for the environment, though some green organisations still look back on John Gummer's reign at the Department of the Environment with respect. He began a crusade for the "greening of Whitehall", in which government departments were forced to consider the green implications of their policies. It is a campaign that the current Environment minister, Michael Meacher, has adopted with even greater enthusiasm. Even so, in a battle between a ministerial crusade and the mighty Whitehall machine, there will be only one winner. If the machine wishes to swat away Mr Meacher, the minister will, indeed, be swatted away.

There are other constraints. Another Blairite points to the decision to keep open some mines under the Government's Coalfield Communities programme. "It will hurt the environment, but help people in terms of jobs and keeping communities together. I am pleased we are helping the people."

Within these constraints, some progress is being made. Britain has pledged to exceed by a substantial margin the target for cutting CO 2 emissions laid down by the 1997 Kyoto summit. Billions of pounds are being invested in public transport. Mr Meacher is now seen as a surprise success of the Blair administration.

More senior figures than Mr Meacher give the impression of concern. Mr Brown mentioned the environment on 13 occasions in his pre-Budget report. Downing Street insiders say Mr Blair was worrying aloud about climate change long before the recent floods. Even Mr Hague speaks of a green dimension.

On one level the big guns know the subject matters. On another this is a story of breathtaking complacency. But it is the voters who are complacent, too. If the environment mattered more to the voters it would matter even more to the politicians. For now, the political leaders will choose to save their own bacon every time.

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