Britain is burning up its future

Figures reveal a nation profligate in use of energy and ignoring the warnings on waste
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Environment Correspondent

A worrying picture of Britain as a nation profligate in its use of energy and having ignored the international warnings of the past 25 years is revealed in official figures published today.

The average British home consumes as much fuel each year as it did in 1970, in spite of two oil-price shocks caused by Middle East wars and a succession of government energy-efficiency campaigns. Transport of both people and freight consumes about twice as much energy as it did 25 years ago, yet there has been no gain at all in energy efficiency.

The figures, which have been compiled after a call for action at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, will alarm environmental groups. They show a disregard for finite natural resources, and make clear that global warming, acid rain and urban smog pollutants are likely to continue as a global hazard well into the next century.

The revelations are made in a long list of "state of the environment" indicators, to be unveiled by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, today. Statisticians in his department say that publication of the figures make Britain a world leader in terms of openness about its environmental performance.

But at least one-third of the indices reveal that our environmental performance is getting worse. Britons travel almost twice the distance they did in 1970, but in doing so they consume more than twice as much fuel. This has happened because people walk and cycle less, and have also switched from more energy-efficient public transport to private cars.

Furthermore, cars have shown no improvement in miles per gallon for nearly a decade, with manufacturers choosing to concentrate on acceleration, high speeds, luxury and safety features instead.

Lorries have become much larger, which should in theory mean freight transport wastes less energy. In fact there has been no improvement; this is thought to reflect the decline in rail freight and changes in retail and factory distribution. "I'm surprised at this finding," a spokesman for the Freight Transport Association declared.

The average home uses as much electricity as it did in 1970, showing that in spite of the growing range of electrical appliances, they have become more efficient. But we also use as much fuel to heat our homes, despite two decades in which governments have promoted and subsidised draught-proofing and better insulation.

Anna Stanford, energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said: "No improvement over 25 years is pretty outrageous. It's extremely disappointing, because saving energy is not just about cutting fuel bills and reducing pollution but about boosting competitiveness, jobs and the economy."

The Government will point out that today's home heating is mostly done by gas, whereas 25 years ago coal dominated. Gas is a much less polluting than coal - but it will also run out long before coal does. Furthermore, while transport and households have shown no improvement, the new indices show that industry does perform much better.

Mr Gummer will be presenting the charts and graphs to the press today. Yesterday, he missed a chance to minimise his personal impact on the environment - having chosen to travel by Concorde to New York for a day trip and return to London subsonically.

The supersonic aircraft uses far more fuel per passenger mile than any other, while also harming the ozone layer. Mr Gummer, whose flight was paid for by taxpayers, was attending a meeting of "internationally eminent persons" selected by UN General Secretary Boutros Boutros Ghali. The panel is planning a UN environment conference later this year.

Andrew Warren, director of industry lobby group the Association for the Conservation of Energy, said the Government had failed to regulate the increasingly privatised fuel market in a way which encouraged energy efficiency.

An internal British Gas memo was leaked to him at the weekend. Rob Leonard, director of business development for one of the nation's biggest energy companies, wrote that he did not "want to take a high profile on the issue ... there is no bottom-line benefit".