Steve Richards: A revolution in front of our eyes

Brown has gone through a profound sea change on the environment
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The Independent Online

Recently, a Cabinet minister told me he expected revolutionary consequences to arise from the economic and political crises that have swept over this country during the past year. After such extraordinary convulsions, he suggested that things would and could never be the same again. He was not sure what form the revolutionary change would take, but was certain that it would happen.

I was struck by the conversation and thought of writing a column looking at whether his premise was correct, and speculating as to what the dramatic consequences might be.

This week I realised there was no need for speculation. A revolution of sorts is happening in front of our eyes, only it has nothing to do with the parliamentary expenses scandal or the collapse of the financial markets. Indeed, I suspect the Cabinet minister is wrong in his premise; both of those crises will be resolved in different ways.

The overblown furore about MPs' expenses is being sorted already and Britain's trivial political scandal will not happen again. The much more significant economic crisis is still being played out and, at some point, fresh, bolder policies will surface to guide Britain away from the deregulated frenzy that marked the 1980s and 1990s.

The revolution that is happening now relates to the Government's response to climate change. I am not an environmental specialist, but I was struck on Wednesday by how many experts told me that the publication of the Government's White Paper, its route map towards a lower carbon future, was in a limited way something of an historic moment. According to one who was previously deeply critical of the Government's approach, Brown and the relevant ministers had gone through a profound sea change in their approach over the past two or three years.

Another passionate environmentalist from within the Government, and therefore obviously much more subjective, outlined to me what he regarded as the pivotal sequence. The Stern report on climate change, which stressed that radical action was the least risky option, had a big impact on Brown, who had previously shown little interest. When David Miliband was Environment Secretary under Tony Blair, he passed the Climate Change Act, which committed Britain to meeting overall low carbon emission targets. The objective was bold but the means were still vague. According to the Government insider, the key at that stage was the legally binding nature of the commitment. He points out there was no equivalent commitment to meet the target to abolish child poverty.

Next, he regards the appointment of Ed Miliband to a newly formed climate change department as highly significant. Brown deploys his close allies in areas he regards as high priority. Ed Balls presides over schools and children's welfare, Douglas Alexander (although perhaps not as close an ally as he once was) is at international development. Ed Miliband was moved from the desert of the Cabinet Office to address climate change.

His brother's original tough overall targets for reducing greenhouse gases became tougher still and more precise at the last Budget. Now each department must reach specific legally binding targets. This means that if the Department of Transport continues to support cheap flights, it must find other more drastic ways of reaching its target. As far as I can tell, it will have no choice but to switch its focus from road-building to improving the railways. As I wrote on Monday, I have doubts about whether Britain has the political will for a high-speed railway. Now the carbon emissions target for that department leads me to hope that it might.

Soon every department will make calculations about carbon emissions in the same way they have to adapt policies to the level of spending available. The regulator set up after the privatisation of electricity, previously limited to regulating price, must now act to ensure that companies generate low carbon emissions too. In addition, Miliband will only give companies access to the national grid if they meet low carbon targets. The free for all in the energy market is over and low carbon emission is the agent that determines which companies will flourish.

There are always grounds for caution when New Labour makes claims for radical policies. I am conditioned to be sceptical, after Tony Blair's decision to deliver a speech on a housing estate in his first week in power was billed as a welfare revolution, as if the act of speech-making was a substitute for policy. Gordon Brown, too, has never knowingly undersold an initiative. I should also add that, although the environmental groups on the whole were positive in their response to the White Paper, they had deep concerns, especially about the timidity over cheap flights, which were left largely untouched.

I understand that particular ministerial timidity. Depriving those on low incomes of a trip abroad is not something easily done by any government, let alone if you are part of an unpopular administration close to an election. Sometimes it is easier to be green if you are well off and can afford more expensive fares. More importantly, if green politics becomes defined, with a humourless earnestness, by one or two big policies associated wholly with deprivation, it will not get very far.

My grounds for caution are based more on looking around Britain now. It does not feel very green compared with quite a lot of comparable countries, with its often filthy non-cycle-friendly cities and expensive transport. The symbolic moment will come when we look at options for a weekend away to discover that the train is cheaper than the car. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are not emitting hot air alone when they point out that the Government's record over the years is not an especially inspiring one.

Still, it will have no choice but to be inspiring from now on. If they lose the next election, the Conservatives are apparently committed to similar objectives, even if there is an important disagreement about the means. They place more faith in market-based solutions, while Ed Miliband sees the value in pulling a lever or two. The Cabinet minister was right, but he was looking at the wrong crises. The way Britain is governed changed this week and, one way or another, our lives will change too.