Leading article: Does the left hand know what the right is doing?

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The Independent Online

The Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, yesterday revealed how the Government's Climate Change Bill, unveiled in March, could be modified as a result of a period of public consultation. We are informed that new features of the legislation might include the incorporation of greenhouse gases from aviation and shipping into emission-reduction targets. The Bill might also make the target of cutting emissions by 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050 more ambitious.

All this would obviously constitute a step in the right direction. But the fundamental flaw in the Bill would remain: where is the guarantee that these pledges will be met? We know that the Government is perfectly capable of dropping targets when they become inconvenient. This is what happened when it became clear that the longstanding Labour manifesto commitment to cut the UK's emissions by 20 per cent by 2010 would not be attained. Making such targets legally binding is the right approach in theory. But five-year "carbon budgets", as set down in the Bill, will not provide anything like enough discipline for governments. Only annual binding targets can achieve that.

Unfortunately, we are still in the realm of ambitious rhetoric, rather than action, from the Government when it comes to climate change. Ministers are still ducking hard choices that need to be made if we, as a nation, are to face up to the threat of global warming. The behaviour of the Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly was a case in point. Unveiling sensible proposals to roll out congestion charging to more cities and establish more high-speed rail links, Ms Kelly announced that she is opposed to "arbitrary targets to curb airline growth". This is an astonishing position. Aviation is the UK's fastest growing source of carbon emissions. If left unchecked, it will ruin any prospect of bringing down our overall emissions by 60 per cent by the middle of the century. How exactly does Ms Kelly's thinking fit with the ambitious targets that are to be laid out in the Climate Change Bill? It is increasingly clear that the Government's left hand does not know what the right is doing.

This is indicative of a wider policy drift on climate change. Britain is on target (just) to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. But this owes more to a national switch from coal to natural gas as an energy source, rather than any environmental policies from the Government. Indeed, for all of Tony Blair's green rhetoric over the past decade, UK emissions have actually risen by some 3 per cent since 1997. And Gordon Brown has so far been just as unconvincing.

It is time for Mr Brown to assert his environmental credentials by ensuring that this Climate Change Bill is sufficiently rigorous as to reflect the scale and urgency of the crisis. The Prime Minister must also begin the hard work of putting a proper price on carbon emissions by increasing taxes drastically on heavily polluting behaviour. The price of driving, flying and the use of energy by households and businesses must reflect the impact they are having on the environment.

There will always be those who argue that for Britain alone to take such painful action to reduce emissions would be futile because developing nations are increasing their own at such an astonishing rate. But this is sheer defeatism. The only way we can increase our moral influence in persuading developing nations such as China and India to keep down their own emissions is to take a lead in making our own economy greener. Why else should they accept advice from those who built their wealth and power through burning vast quantities of fossil fuels? It is time that our politicians woke up to the fact that the only way we can mitigate this international climate crisis is through example.

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