Leading article: An immense challenge, but a tepid response

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Gordon Brown made his first major speech on climate change as Prime Minister yesterday. It has been a long time coming. That fact is all the more strange considering what he had to say. Global warming, he said, constituted "an immense challenge to the world". The cost of doing nothing would be an economic crisis as bad as the Great Depression plus a world war rolled into one. Nothing less was needed than a fourth industrial revolution, on a par with those provoked by the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and the microprocessor in turn.

Given all that, why is there such a curious lack of urgency about what Mr Brown is actually doing, rather than merely saying? He says he is ready to consider increasing the Government's target of a cut in Britain's carbon emissions from 6 per cent to 80 per cent by 2050, as part of an international agreement, if the new independent committee on climate change recommends that. Consider? If someone else recommends it? As part of a wider agreement? Whatever happened to "conviction politics"? If that is the right thing to do – and this newspaper has long argued that it is – Mr Brown should do it now, and gain the moral leverage in international negotiations that comes from setting a good example.

From the big to the small picture – specifically his desire to rid the nation of one-use-only plastic bags. Every year in Britain, he says, more than 13 billion go into our landfill dumps – that is 10 bags a week for every household. So what is he going to do about it? He is going to convene a forum which will discuss the issue. In contrast, the Irish government has introduced a modest tax on plastic bags which has cut their use by 90 per cent. Why doesn't Mr Brown, the conviction politician, do the same?

So it continues. The rhetoric is strong but the actions are puny – like setting up a "green hotline" to advise people on what they can do to cut their impact on the environment. There are echoes here of John Major's "cones hotline", long consigned to the dustbin of history.

Meanwhile, he does nothing to address the inconsistencies at the heart of Labour's policies. The forthcoming Climate Change Bill fails to impose binding targets to cut emissions beyond the levels achieved not by the policies of the Tony Blair era but by those of Margaret Thatcher in closing down the coal mines and switching to natural gas. For all the talk about emissions cuts, the Government's transport strategy points in the opposite direction, especially in the week that it is likely to back the expansion of Heathrow Airport. So do the additional £300m cuts, disclosed at the weekend, in government environmental services.

Mr Brown did announce some steps in the right direction. The Green Homes Service is a positive attempt to make our existing houses greener, but it needed some practical incentive, such as cutting VAT on energy-efficient repairs and maintenance on private houses which create nearly 30 per cent of Britain's carbon emissions. It was good that he announced a competition to build in Britain one of the world's first commercial carbon capture and storage projects. But swift action will be required if that is to be exported to developing nations like China, which is now building two coal-fired power stations a week. And his commitment to the £1bn public-private Energy Technologies Institute, to focus on off-shore wind, wave and tidal energy, is welcome – although Britain starts from a far lower base than most of our European neighbours, despite having the greatest wind, wave and tidal resource in Europe.

But it is all too little, and on too small a scale. If green speeches by political leaders were enough, said Friends of the Earth, climate change would have been solved many years ago. The sad truth is that on the really big issues, Britain is taking a lead only in the production of hot air rather than in its reduction.