Michael Meacher: The fuel debate is not about 2p, but the future of the planet

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The Independent Online

The fact that Gordon Brown has agreed to "review" his plan to raise fuel duty by 2p per litre in September - and the consequent calling off of all but one of the planned fuel protests yesterday - has been greeted with sighs of relief all round. Thank heavens for that. We'd all prefer an issue ducked to an embarrassing row, wouldn't we? But now Elliot Morley has popped up and, according to one newspaper, "shattered Labour's fragile truce with the fuel protesters". He says "A simplistic knee-jerk reaction to short-term petrol supply problems is not the answer."

The fact that Gordon Brown has agreed to "review" his plan to raise fuel duty by 2p per litre in September - and the consequent calling off of all but one of the planned fuel protests yesterday - has been greeted with sighs of relief all round. Thank heavens for that. We'd all prefer an issue ducked to an embarrassing row, wouldn't we? But now Elliot Morley has popped up and, according to one newspaper, "shattered Labour's fragile truce with the fuel protesters". He says "A simplistic knee-jerk reaction to short-term petrol supply problems is not the answer."

Well, good for him. The whole debate is taking place on the wrong basis. The issue is not merely the price to the car or truck driver (after all, the real cost of motoring has actually fallen in the past two decades), but whether petrol price policy should be driven by Middle East oil markets or by a looming global warming catastrophe.

There is now abundant evidence that global warming is proceeding fasterthan scientists had previously predicted. If we carry on down our present path, we shall treble the amount of carbon dioxide that we emit by 2100, to a level of 1,000 parts per million, twice what scientists regard as a safe level. Greenhouse gas emissions from cars and lorries are now the fastest-rising cause of global warming. Unlike the last time we were in this situation, at the truck drivers' fuel protest in 2000, when the environment wasn't even mentioned, it should now occupy centre stage. The Government should have the courage to make the case - squarely and without apology - that fuel duty is a key instrument in controlling carbon dioxide emissions.

The counter to this argument is that increasing petrol duty is politically unpopular. It will not even be effective: the number of cars around the world, especially in developing countries such as China and India, is set to rise exponentially. Second, greenhouse gas emissions from industry - notably a massive increase in coal-burning to fuel China's increasing industrialisation - are growing rapidly. These will not be affected by Western transport taxes.

However, if the West (including eventually the US, by far the worst polluter) does not give a lead when we are the biggest offenders, countries such as China and India, with two-fifths of the world's population, will not follow suit. So the utterly devastating consequences of global warming will simply be visited on the whole world more quickly. If we delay until climatic disaster is so intense that we are forced to take action in order to survive, it will be too late because scientists believe there is at least a 200-year lead time before measures taken now will begin to cut carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

But it does mean standing up to the vested interests, which the Government hitherto has not been good at, whether over tobacco advertising, promotion of unhealthy fast foods, airline subsidies or alcohol advertising. In the case of the transport lobby, it means sending out a clear and unambiguous message, whether for road traffic or air travel, that there are environmental costs that have to be paid for in full, not least to encourage the search for less damaging means of travel.

It is therefore a much, much bigger issue than whether or not to raise fuel duty by 2p a litre. Nor will pleading with Opec to increase production quotas have much effect when the output of member countries is already 10 per cent above the formal quota limits. What is needed is a long-term policy to escape the regular cycle whereby governments push billions of dollars into investing in alternative energy sources as oil markets tighten, only to allow such investments to dissipate as the oil crisis eases.

First, the Government should keep fuel duty steady in real terms, but make clear that it is adding a surcharge of, say, three per cent a year for environmental reasons. The extra proceeds should not accrue to the Exchequer, but should be invested in alternative, affordable public transport. Second, because the end of Big Oil is now in sight and steadily increasing demand will overtake supply by 2010-15 - pushing up the price of oil inexorably - a sustained multibillion pound investment in renewable energy is imperative. The eclipse of oil, the gradual rundown of coal and the phase-out of nuclear power, heralded in last year's Energy White Paper, now need to be followed through in founding the new energy world order. That is the real lesson of the 2p debate.

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