Blair provides new impetus for green agenda

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Tony Blair embraced the environmental cause yesterday for the first time since he took office in a major speech that set out his Government's green agenda.

Tony Blair embraced the environmental cause yesterday for the first time since he took office in a major speech that set out his Government's green agenda.

The Prime Minister acknowledged - in a way he has never done before - the scale of a whole range of environmental problems, from global climate change to the over-exploitation of fish stocks and the extinction of wildlife, and pledged to "re-engage the political system on the importance of the environmental challenge".

Confounding weekend press reports that he would directly attack environmentalists for their "dogma and prejudice", Mr Blair instead called for a new partnership between green pressure groups, business and the Government to tackle environmental problems and sweetened his call with the announcement of a new £50m renewable energy subsidy for setting up offshore wind farms.

But the speech received a cautious welcome from environmentalists, who over the past three years have come to believe that the main problem with the Government's green policies has been Mr Blair's own lack of interest in them.

His early promise to "put environment at the heart of government" has come to seem hollow, but Mr Blair hinted he was aware of this yesterday when he said he was making "no apology for the priority we have given education, health and crime", before going on to list his Government's green achievements.

Mr Blair hinted at the frustration he has felt at the trite and vociferous green opposition to some of his policies, such as genetic modification technology. "We need to build a new coalition for the environment, a coalition that works with the grain of consumers, business and science, not against them," he said.

Addressing the issue of genetically modified (GM) foods directly, he said: "Contrary to the myth that somehow wicked multinationals and politicians have pressed us to be pro-GM, I am fully aware of the potential impact on biodiversity and people's concerns about health. I am neither pro nor anti. I simply say, 'let us evaluate the technology, test it, and then make a judgement rather than ban it before we even look at it'."

Addressing a Confederation of British Industry-Green Alliance conference in London, the Prime Minister offered a robust defence of the Government's environmental record and pointed to improvements in air and water quality and wildlife protection, as well as the lead Britain has taken in the Kyoto Protocol international climate-change negotiations. "I want to invite environmentalists and business to join me and push green issues back up the political agenda," Mr Blair said.

There were many areas of hard choice, from the demand for housing land in the South-east to the transport needs of people living in isolated rural areas. "These tensions are natural, and we shouldn't try to gloss over them," he added.

Many environmentalists are likely to see the significance of the speech as lying in the Prime Minister's detailed endorsement of the seriousness of environmental problems such as global warming, and in particular his acknowledgement that Britain's proposed 12.5 per cent cut in greenhouse gases is not enough to halt climate change.

"The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has said that the UK will have to cut the CO 2 we produce by 60 per cent by 2050 if we are to slow down the pace of change. If there is one immediate issue that threatens global disaster, it is the changes in our atmosphere," Mr Blair said.

Stephen Tindale, policy director for the campaign group Greenpeace, said: "We are pleased that he has acknowledged the need for much more radical cuts in carbon emissions. We are pleased that he has put more money into offshore wind, but the money the Government has produced is not nearly enough for the challenge Mr Blair has set himself."

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