Leading article: Bridging the green gap

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown said some of the right things yesterday.

To Labour activists in Bristol, he spoke of the dramatic changes in the world economy, and tried to focus on preparing for the future. He talked of how a greener economy is necessary both in itself and as a means to help the British and world economies out of recession. He is right that we should be planning for a "low-carbon recovery", both to reduce climate change and to promote new, green jobs. There is a little serendipity – a word that President Barack Obama uses – in that green technologies tend to be more labour-intensive than the brown technologies that they replace.

So Mr Brown is to be commended on his words: "When some people say this is the wrong time to pursue a low-carbon future, I say this is the best of all times to pursue this change."

So that is agreed, then. The recession is both a challenge and an opportunity. What Mr Brown wants is a green, high-employment economy. President Obama wants it too. So does the United Nations, which came up with the slogan of a "Green New Deal". Most other world leaders pay lip service to the idea, with varying degrees of conviction. This week, Mr Brown goes to Washington to talk to Mr Obama about how they might co-ordinate the global fiscal stimulus and its green component, as they prepare for the G20 summit in London next month. The Prime Minister also has the privilege of the podium at a joint session of Congress from which to make his important case.

No doubt the words will be right and admirable. But, as we report today, Mr Brown's actions have so far fallen disappointingly short. His aspiration to "lead the world in building the low-carbon society" is sadly not credible.

The most striking evidence that the Prime Minister is brown rather than green was his Cabinet's decision in January to give the go-ahead to a third runway at Heathrow. Of course, there is a so-called business case for expansion, and Ed Miliband, the Climate Change Secretary, secured important environmental safeguards. But if this government means it when it says that climate change is so important, it cannot increase the capacity of British airports.

Nor is Heathrow a one-off, a special exception to the rule that carbon dioxide emissions from all sectors need to be sharply reduced. As Geoffrey Lean, our environment editor, reports on page four, an HSBC study of anti-recession policies worldwide finds that Britain's stimulus package is one of the least green. Leaving aside the piquancy of a bank lecturing the Prime Minister on the right thing to do, the study is a comprehensive survey and an authoritative rebuke to Mr Brown. Of course, HSBC is no pressure group. Its directors are not (or not all of them) idealistic environmentalists. They are hard-headed bankers who managed to avoid the kind of mistakes that put Sir Fred Goodwin in the public stocks, and who want to understand the business opportunities of the future. They know that green business could be good business. That is why their findings are so damning for Mr Brown.

By HSBC's calculation, China is spending most on green projects, with Mr Obama's budget following close behind. As a proportion of its fiscal stimulus, South Korea is the most green, with 80 per cent devoted to spending that is intended to cut climate-changing emissions. Britain's contribution is trivial, whether measured in cash terms or as a proportion of the stimulus package.

Mr Brown now has perhaps a last chance to re-make his reputation. What he says this week is not the issue. We are sure that he will say the right things and deliver the words with the right tone of serious moral purpose. What matters is the decisions he takes – or fails to take – to give them meaning. The gap between green words and deeds in his 20 months as Prime Minister so far has yawned widely. The vast sums of public money mobilised to alleviate the recession provide a chance for Mr Brown to start to close the green gap.

Indeed, the crises of climate change and recession come together and require the same solution: a global green stimulus. Mr Brown has shown "a new kind of public leadership", in the words of Labour's policy document, on the need for a global stimulus. But in his case the green part looks like an afterthought, tacked on for presentational purposes. This has the makings of a terrible missed opportunity. As HSBC's interest testifies, energy conservation, renewable energy and low-carbon technology are a huge growth area for the future. Britain has already missed the start of the race. Mr Brown must make sure we catch up, and fast.