Swampy-style green activists may have no faith and much contempt for the conventional political process, but yesterday's fierce exchanges - organised by Friends of the Earth - demonstrated at least that the main parties feel they cannot ignore protection of the environment.
The passionate argument contrasted with the rest of yesterday's campaigning, which dwelt on issues such as Labour's relations with the unions and an arcane debate on whether a judge would rule on disputes over recognition of trade unions.
The green debate on London, organised by Friends of the Earth, was won convincingly by the Liberal Democrats, who have radical plans for tax reform. But Labour's environmental protection spokesman, Michael Meacher, called their programme "a list of dreams from a party that will never have to try to put those dreams into effect".
The Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, promised that under the Conservatives, duty on petrol would keep rising year by year, at 5 per cent annually, to encourage fuel-efficient, less polluting cars. He said the Tory manifesto would pledge other green budgetary reforms.
Mr Meacher, in typically careful Labour-speak, would make no commitment on fuel duties, saying that was a matter for a Labour chancellor. However, the Liberal Democrats have the most punitive policy on petrol prices. Their spokesman, Matthew Taylor, said not only would fuel duties carry on rising by 5 per cent a year - the Government's existing eco-tax commitment - but the Liberal Democrats would impose an additional 4p tax on a litre of petrol. This would be needed to fund their plan to slash the cost of a tax disc for all cars with engines under 1600cc by 93 per cent, from pounds 145 to pounds 10, in an attempt to encourage a shift to cars which use less petrol and produce fewer climate-changing greenhouse gases in their exhausts.
The third party's tax-disc and petrol-duty changes would be phased in over four years. "We will encourage people to dump their gas- guzzlers," said Mr Taylor.
The Liberal Democrats are also putting the finishing touches to proposals for a carbon tax, aimed at cutting consumption of coal, oil and gas - thereby reducing Britain's emissions of greenhouse gases.
The money raised would be used to cut VAT across the board and to cut employers' National Insurance Contributions.
For Labour, Michael Meacher, pledged that 10 per cent of Britain's electricity would be generated by non-polluting renewable energy sources, such as the wind and sun, by 2010. Tens of thousands of unemployed young people would get pay and training in an environmental task force, working on nature conservation, energy conservation and recycling.
The debate was held in front of journalists. All three spokesmen agreed that man-made climate change was the most important and intractable environmental problem. Mr Meacher pledged that Labour would cut annual carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent of their 1990 level by 2010; the others said his party simply could not deliver this.
Mr Gummer admitted what green groups had long suspected - that he has been held back in pushing through environmental policies that he wanted. But he blamed his difficulties on a lack of effective opposition from the Labour Party which, he said, had shown little interest until a few months ago.
Uta Bellion, policy director of Friends of the Earth, who chaired the debate, said she was disappointed that neither of the two main parties had made firm commitments on environmental tax reform, with a view to higher taxes on "negatives" like pollution and resource depletion and less tax on "positives" like employment and income.
Jonathon Porritt, the former Friends of the Earth director, said he believed environmental issues had crept up the politicians' agenda. "I've been encouraged, this isn't a bad start to the campaign."
Mr Porritt is now a leading light in the Real World Coalition, a group of more than 40 non-governmental organisations which will be trying during the campaign to broaden the horizons both of the political parties and the electorate. Members include Christian Aid, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and Charter 88.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace stayed away from the campaigning and set course for the Atlantic Ocean. It joined giants like Shell and BP in applying for oil exploration and development licences covering 22,000 square miles of stormy waters to the north and west of Scotland.
It has no intention of looking for oil. Its application, which cost pounds 3,000, is intended to highlight its objections to any new offshore oil developments.
No specific commitments from John Gummer prior to the launch of the party's manifesto. Policies which were launched in government to be continued: on financial incentives and charges to protect the environment; halting out-of-town development; protecting wildlife alongside voluntary groups; ending over-fishing of the North Sea; and cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
Carbon dioxide emissions to be cut by 20 per cent through funding energy- conservation schemes in housing; boost- ing non-polluting renewable energy sources and introducing ''an integrated public transport strategy''. More prosecutions of companies by the Government's Environment Agency and Drinking Water Inspectorate.
Greenfield development tax, to discourage development in the countryside or of urban green sites. Funds raised used to cut business rates. Scrapping the EU's Common Fisheries Policy. Carbon tax on fossil fuels, with revenues used to cut VAT and employers' NI contributions.Reuse content