Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

The year the big two started turning green
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The Independent Online

2006 may well be remembered as the year in which mainstream politics went green, or at least a shade of it. In the past, Labour and the Tories have temporarily donned green clothes - notably after the Green Party scooped 15 per cent of the votes in the 1989 European Parliament elections - or stolen some ideas from the Liberal Democrats, the mainstream party with the best environmental credentials.

But I can't remember a year in which the main parties devoted so much energy to green issues. This time, it's not just a brief fling. Politicians are divided about the environment's potency in elections, but they admit they were behind the public mood and can't ignore it.

Tony Blair deserves credit for putting climate change on the international agenda, as an otherwise scathing report about his America-centric foreign policy by the Chatham House think-tank noted this week.

The politician who put green issues on the domestic agenda was David Cameron, who seized on them as a way of showing the voters that the Tories had changed. Normally, oppositions can't "do" anything, yet Mr Cameron managed a rare coup by forcing Labour to include a Climate Change Bill in its legislative programme.

Sending signals to the public that you care about the planet is the easy bit. Working out the fine detail of new policies is much harder. The Cabinet is struggling to agree how radical the Bill should be, and the Tories are in a tangle over whether to support annual targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Sometimes they back them, sometimes they acknowledge the need for more flexibility.

Gordon Brown has nodded in the direction of the green lobby, but it is only a small nod. Campaigners fear the overall direction of the Treasury's policies is not green at all.

A review of transport by Sir Rod Eddington, the former British Airways boss, did little to tackle emissions. Road pricing, his prescription, could even increase emissions as the Treasury might have to cut petrol duty to soften the blow. This would increase the driving incentive for people in rural areas and make it even more attractive to live outside towns.

Aviation looks a hopeless case. Mr Brown's £5 increase in air passenger duty will do nothing to reduce flying. It is really a stealth tax, not a green tax.

The Treasury looks to the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) as the best solution. But critics say that means what is "best" for the industry. The European Commission announced on Wednesday that airlines will be brought into the scheme from 2011. It's a step in the right direction, although the original proposals were watered down after fierce lobbying by business. And - surprise, surprise - the United States has objected to the plan to include flights to and from Europe in 2012.

The Government has also given the go-ahead for more runways. Its climate change and aviation policies contradict each other. Mr Brown believes the environmental lobby sees everything through one end of the telescope and would always ask for more, whatever he does. He thinks it is possible to secure "green growth" but that his reforms to ensure growth and competitiveness must come first. Recalling the fuel protests of 2000 and the Tories' attempt to impose 15 per cent VAT on domestic fuel and power, he suspects a hike in green taxes would lose elections, not win them.

Yet I suspect the very limited action in last month's pre-Budget report was only a holding operation, and that Mr Brown is keeping some more green measures up his sleeve for when he becomes Prime Minister next year.

He may buy the analysis of David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, that "red-green" is more credible than "blue-green" because the issue requires a combination of state intervention and individual action that comes more naturally to Labour than the "small state" Tories. Mr Brown may also seek to neuter Mr Cameron's green offensive in order to brand his party as the "same old Tories".

Critics accuse Mr Brown of cherry-picking the impressive review of the economics of climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern, the former senior Treasury official. The Chancellor seized on his finding that climate change requires international action, but played down his call for Britain to give a lead. "The behaviour of each country will determine whether the collective response is sustained and effective," said Sir Nicholas.

Ministers insist Britain has blazed a trail by promising to cut CO2 emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. But they also point out that we account for only 2 per cent of the world's emissions and that if we stopped all emissions, China would make up the difference within two years.

In doing so, they risk slipping into the defeatist language of America's neoconservatives, the real villains of the climate change story, who argue that there is no point in acting unless the fast-growing polluters such as China and India do. This is pernicious. Blaming someone else will not save the planet.