Tony Juniper: Acts of populism cannot conceal a lack of leadership

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The Independent Online

Considering the political and scientific consensus that has emerged on the urgent need to slash emissions of carbon dioxide, yesterday's Budget falls a long way short of not only what is necessary, but also what was possible to do.

The most recent modelling suggests that a cut in carbon dioxide emissions of some 80 per cent is needed by 2050. And although Mr Darling acknowledged this, and added that urgent action is warranted, he went on to announce only a weak mixture of measures that will hardly dent the country's overall release of greenhouse gases. Although some of these measures, such as a increasing car tax for gas-guzzlers and aviation duty reform, are helpful, they will not get us to the destination of a low-carbon society with anything like the speed we need to go.

He could have gone so much further. The creation of a low-carbon and resource-efficient society is a huge opportunity, and not just for the environment, but also for the economy and people's welfare. By taking the right steps we could over time create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the technologies of the future. By encouraging more sustainable transport and buildings we could improve comfort and mobility at the same time as making drastic reductions in our environmental impact. By going faster toward a lower-carbon economy we could also improve fuel security and contribute to industrial competitiveness.

A combination of measures to make it more attractive to make real cuts at home and in how we live could have been delivered. For example, measures to make it cost-effective for home-owners to fit small-scale renewable energy systems, tax breaks to encourage energy-efficiency improvements and a £5bn windfall tax on unearned energy company profits to insulate homes were all possible, if the will was really there.

The eye-catching announcement on plastic carrier bags, and the threat to tax them, was a populist signal that could help shift public attitudes, but we need far more substantial measures to encourage waste minimisation and recycling. This is not an area where the Government has in recent times shown a lot of political backbone, for example dithering over whether or not to make waste collection charges for households that don't recycle.

We need real leadership at this stage. The time for prevarication on climate-change policy has passed. Green tax measures would be more popular if they were linked to cuts in taxes on people and jobs, as opinion polls show.

Given New Labour's reputation for slick communications it seems that it was not a lack of creativity that was at fault, but a lack of leadership, vision and imagination.

Tony Juniper is executive director of Friends of the Earth