UK's top scientist delivers stinging attack on Government's environmental record

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The Independent Online

Britain's most senior scientist, Lord May of Oxford, has lambasted the Government's environmental record, labelling some of its policies as "gutless" and saying it needed to do "a hell of a lot more".

The outspoken president of the Royal Society fired off a series of broadsides when commenting on the five-yearly "report card" on the state of the environment in England and Wales, published yesterday by the Environment Agency.

The report, which draws together the latest information on eight green sectors from air quality and waste management to wildlife and climate change, shows a mixed picture of improvement and deterioration, presented in measured terms.

But in an uncompromising speech at the launch of the report, Lord May hit out at the Government's recent green record in terms which will cause ministers to wince, not least because he knows what he is talking about, from the inside - he was the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser from 1995 to 2000.

Only two days ago, Lord May led an unprecedented call for the leaders of all the G8 rich countries to take action on climate change, from all the scientific academies of the G8 nations. He openly and fiercely criticised the Bush administration.

Yesterday he turned his attack on Britain. In uninhibited language, the Australian-born ecologist and mathematician was fiercely critical of official action - or lack of it - on waste, car pollution, fish stocks, protection of wildlife sites and climate change.

On waste, he characterised the Government's actions to increase recycling, as "great - but displacement activity".

What we ought to be doing, he said, was regulating the creation of waste in the first place, pointing out that some countries had already taken steps such as banning plastic bags.

He added: "What we have is a totally gutless avoidance of introducing legislation that tries to reverse the trend to ever-more wastefully elaborate and environmentally damaging over-packaging of stuff. And there's not much sign we're going to do much better."

On pollution from cars and lorries, he said: "Maybe things have got slightly better but there's still a hell of a lot more to be done, compared for example to certainly California and most parts of the US whom we're accustomed to slagging off whenever we walk about environmental things. We're much worse."

On depletion of fish stocks, he lashed out at the Government's failure to turn scientific advice on overfishing into policy, in the EU's council of fisheries ministers.

"In the EU, again a marked example of gutlessness, Britain backed off defending its more conservative and scientifically based position on setting fisheries quotas, and just folded its hand and left the table to a continuation of rapacious stupidity, in the interests of political comfort," he said.

He said that the continuing degradation of Britain's own wildlife sites, small though it was, undermined any criticism we might make of tropical countries allowing deforestation.

"We agonise over the loss of something of the order of 1 per cent of tropical forests each year, but the significant damage to our sites of special scientific interest in this small, hand-crafted wealthy island, is of the same magnitude," he said. "If we can't keep our own house in order, who are we to be lecturing tropical countries as they cut down their forests?"

On climate change, he welcomed the fact that Britain had made global warming one of the key policy issues for its forthcoming G8 presidency.

But he added: "We need to recognise that our own Government should be doing more in terms of its own domestic policy, if it's to turn its ambitions to be a world leader on climate change into a reality."

The state of the nation

LOCAL ISSUES:

Better quality urban rivers, better parks, but poorer parts of towns and cities still suffer pollution problems

VERDICT: Better

WILDLIFE:

Many sites improving, otters spreading, coarse fish healthier because of less pollution, but a quarter of species in decline.

VERDICT: Slightly better, but still poor

AIR QUALITY:

Big drops in emissions of sulphur dioxide. Nitrogen dioxide emissions from cars down but from industry up.

VERDICT: Much better

WATER:

Bathing waters cleaner, pollution from substances such as mercury and cadmium falling, but nutrients in rivers from fertilisers still high.

VERDICT: better

LAND:

Clean-ups of contamination continue; more houses on brownfield sites, but soil erosion is increasingly recognised as a problem.

VERDICT: a bit worse

WASTE:

The amount of household waste in England has started to go down for the first time, but 23 councils are making little progress on recycling.

VERDICT: slightly better

CLIMATE CHANGE:

Britain is not on track to meet its target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010. Emissions from traffic still rising.

VERDICT: worse

FLOODING:

Increasing storms, heavier rainfall and rising sea levels. Higher peak river flows are being recorded, but more defences are being put in.

VERDICT: worse

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