Everything from trade policy to electricity generation, from shopping to motoring, would be affected, John Major said. Referring to VAT on domestic fuel and pledges to increase petrol and diesel duty, he said that 'quite painful political action' had already been necessary.
'I don't expect to have people dancing in the street at the prospect of road pricing,' he said as he launched four bulky follow-up reports to the Earth Summit which he attended in Rio de Janeiro 18 months ago.
He was flanked by two Cabinet ministers and six others from a range of departments.
Yet environmental organisations that scoured the 500 pages of documents - on recycled paper - said they could find no new policies, only restatements of existing government commitments.
Andrew Lees, campaigns coordinator of Friends of the Earth, said: 'When you open the covers you find old commitments repackaged and a virtual absence of any meaningful targets and timetables.' Fiona Reynolds, director of the Council for the Protection for Rural England, said: 'We've looked fairly hard and we can't find new policies.'
Chris Smith, Labour's environmental affairs spokesman, was also unimpressed and angry that ministers had chosen a press conference rather than a Commons statement to launch the reports.
They cover: the overarching theme of sustainable development - reconciling economic growth with protection of the environment and natural resources for future generations; controlling rising emissions of man-made climate-changing gases; protecting the richness and diversity of wild plant and animal species and conserving and expanding the nation's forests.
One key environmental threat featured in the first three documents is the rapid growth in road traffic and the expansion of roads. Apart from swallowing up countryside and habitats, vehicles make a major and increasing contribution to smog, acid rain and global warming emissions.
The document on sustainable development says road traffic is projected to double by 2025 and 'further measures will be necessary by government to influence the rate of traffic growth' without specifying them.
But John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and Mr Major said the Government would bring in motorway pricing, had pledged to increase duty on petrol and diesel by 5 per cent a year until the end of the decade and was reconsidering traffic forecasts and reviewing the motorway and trunk road building programme, which will cost pounds 23bn spread over 15 years.
However, Robert Key, the roads minister, also told yesterday's audience of 300 journalists and guests inside Whitehall's Banqueting Hall that much of the nation's railways were already lavishly subsidised.
New roads were needed to maintain the competitiveness of British industry. The UK suffered by being on the periphery of the European Union and 'the costs (to industry) of congestion are gross - about pounds 15bn a year.'
Mr Major also announced the creation of a small, high- powered independent panel that will advise him and the Government on implementing sustainable development, which Mr Gummer defined as 'not cheating on our children'. It will be chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell, a former UK ambassador to the United Nations and the man who alerted Margaret Thatcher to the threat of man-made climate change. It will meet four times a year and has been promised access to ministers and the Prime Minister.
There will also be a larger UK Round Table on Sustainable Development. Representatives of local councils, business, environmental experts and green pressure groups will meet ministers twice a year.
Critics of the Government have pointed to the example of the Netherlands, where a second, revised version of the Dutch plan for sustainable development has just been published, four years after the first.
Holland's environmental commitments are much more demanding. Most important pollutants are to be cut by between 50 and 90 per cent by 2010, with the aim of achieving 'sustainability' within one generation.
(Photograph and Graphs omitted)