Donnachadh McCarthy: We needed green action - we got Brown lethargy

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The Independent Online

The main detail trailed before yesterday's Budget was that the Chancellor was to tackle 4x4s by increasing road duty on gas guzzlers by up to £210. Considering the average price of a Chelsea footballer's motor-car is over £100,000, I fail to see how an extra £45 a year rise in road duty can deliver anything other than a cheap headline.

If the Chancellor believes such vehicles are damaging our environment, then surely such vehicles should be banned by introducing a progressive legal maximum emissions limit for motor vehicles?

David Cameron's pitch for the centre ground occupied by the Liberal Democrats includes trying to steal their environmental clothes, and his admirable commitment to make an eco-house out of his own home has put the pressure on the Chancellor to prove his own green credentials. Gordon Brown's record to date has been one of failure to tackle the global environmental crises facing Britain.

Since he came to power, carbon dioxide emissions, traffic congestion, domestic rubbish and airline journeys have all continued their inexorable destructive rise. Despite the limited green tax tinkering in yesterday's Budget, the percentage of green taxes under his chancellorship have actually fallen from 9.8 per cent to 8.3 per cent.

This last year, government actions have been particularly damaging to the renewable energy sector. Taxes on pure vegetable oil used in diesel engines have doubled, millions of pounds paid by electricity bill payers as part of the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation, earmarked for investment in renewables, was purloined by the Treasury. Meanwhile, the major wind farm developers are in despair over the huge amounts demanded by the National Grid for providing the infrastructure for their connection.

In addition, the Government has closed its very modest Clear Skies grant scheme for installation of home solar panels and wind-turbines, causing great uncertainty and hardship for the new cottage industries installing such eco-systems. When Hurricane Katrina and the Kenyan and Somalian drought demonstrate the potential for climate change to cause devastating human misery, such actions defy logic.

Given his failure to date, what should Gordon Brown be doing if he is to stake a genuine claim to becoming an eco-friendly Prime Minister? There are three tools the Government can use: taxation, regulation and the creation of an eco-facilitating infrastructure.

The fuel escalator introduced by the Tories needs to be restored. Yesterday, the Chancellor even postponed the annual adjustment for inflation. Motoring has got cheaper in real terms over the past decade while public transport costs have soared.

Duties on alternative fuels such as bio-diesel and bio-ethanol should be scrapped. The current situation whereby greenfield developments are subject to lower tax than urban brownfield sites should be reversed to make it more attractive to developers to develop sites in urban areas, thus reducing travel needs. Councils should be required to construct comprehensive cycle networks, require all new developments to be zero carbon and instigate compulsory domestic and commercial waste recycling.

Internal UK flights need to be fairly taxed, and the Air Passenger Duty which under Brown has actually fallen, should be raised significantly.

Friends of the Earth estimate that the airline industry is responsible for 6 per cent of UK CO 2 emissions, but the airlines avoid £9.3bn worth of taxes that other sectors in the economy have to pay. That is equivalent to a £300 subsidy from every taxpayer.

Seven per cent of the country's electricity is used for lighting, so why is it still legal to sell incandescent and halogen bulbs, which use up to 75 per cent more electricity than energy-saving bulbs? The Government, and not the nascent wind industry, should be paying for the adjustment of the National Grid to take advantage of our natural renewable energy resources.

Yesterday's Budget was not the "Green Budget" spun by the Chancellor's briefers; instead, it was more of the usual brown institutional lethargy in the face of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. What is needed is nothing less than an emergency eco-Marshall Plan if we are to avoid the doomsday scenario recently envisaged by James Lovelock. Tragically, with the global climate-chaos clock ticking, Gordon Brown has failed to deliver.

The writer is a home and business eco-auditor