A damp squib was how most environmentalists saw Alistair Darling's speech yesterday. There were no major new moves signalled by the Chancellor to tackle climate change or any other environmental problems – rather, a series of tinkerings around the edges.
Indeed, the measure that drew most approval was a Tory idea, unveiled last month in the Conservative Party's Quality of Life review – the plan to tax air travel by the flight, not by the passenger as at present.
When it is introduced in 2009, it is likely that this will act as a strong incentive to airlines to make more efficient use of their fleets, and will end the anomaly whereby an empty plane incurs no duty whatsoever, although it produces just as much greenhouse gas emissions as a full one.
"The aviation industry pays no fuel tax or VAT so it is right they contribute something to the economy, and we have argued that taxing flights rather than passengers is a better way of doing this," said Stephen Joseph of the Campaign for Better Transport.
"But we need to see investment in transport improvements, including rail upgrades, as an alternative to short-distance air travel."
John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, made a similar point. "A tax that penalises airlines for flying half-empty planes makes a lot of sense, but the Government's support for the unrestrained expansion of UK airports seriously undermines its credibility," he said.
But although the move in the direction of curbing aircraft emissions was welcomed, environmentalists were extremely disappointed that there was virtually nothing new in the statement to help reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from their other two major sources: motor transport and people's homes.
On the first issue, Mr Darling published a report by Professor Julia King showing that by choosing the most efficient cars on the market today, drivers could cut emissions and their fuel bills by up to quarter. "With new technology and cleaner power, we could cut carbon emissions from cars by up to 80 per cent," Mr Darling said. But he put off doing anything about it at least until the Budget next spring.
On the second issue, Mr Darling unveiled no new proposals at all. The pressure group Friends of the Earth had suggested a list of measures he might take, ranging from council tax rebates for people installing home energy efficiency measures, to a guaranteed premium price for people who sell excess renewable electricity generated from their homes back to the National Grid, but Mr Darling ignored the lot.
FoE's executive director Tony Juniper said: "This year's PBR comes almost a year after Nicholas Stern's review of the economics of climate change. The report, which was commissioned by Gordon Brown, warned that unless urgent action is taken, global warming would have a devastating economic impact.
"But this pre-Budget report falls well short of what is required to help tackle it. Last month, Gordon Brown said he wanted Britain to lead in developing a low-carbon economy. This was a golden opportunity for the Chancellor to produce a range of green incentives to encourage people to go green. But yet again the Government has not delivered."
Mr Sauven said: "The UK Government has signed up to get 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. This pre-Budget report is nowhere near getting us on track for what is needed to reach this target. It represents nothing more than tinkering with the system – casting serious doubts on the Government's international position in the run-up to the UN climate negotiations in Bali in December."Reuse content