Leading article: Let the praise wait until real progress has been made

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The Independent Online

No Labour conference these days seems complete without a distinguished guest speaker from abroad delivering a rousing speech, praising the party's achievements. This year's conference was graced with two such speakers. There was, of course, Bill Clinton, who performed his morale-boosting duties with typical aplomb yesterday. But there was also the Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, who took the podium to thank our government and Prime Minister for their efforts in combating global warming. He was also scathingly critical of his own country's failure to take the threat of climate change seriously.

It is difficult to find fault with Mr Villaraigosa's verdict on the Bush administration, which even now remains in a state of denial over the scale of the threat posed by global warming. But how justified was the Los Angeles mayor in paying such tributes to our own government's record? A close examination of what has actually been achieved since New Labour came to power suggests his verdict was far too generous.

The Government has clearly not been standing still in the face of the threat. Ministers can justifiably point to the Climate Change Levy, which imposes incentives on industries to cut their emissions. And only yesterday the Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, was announcing £10m in government funding for a wind-farm project. Yvette Cooper, the housing minister, is apparently planning to introduce an environmentally friendly building code for new houses in the UK. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has been working to make an impact on a global level. At last week's annual meeting of the World Bank, he persuaded governments to back a $20bn fund to finance clean energy in developing countries.

All of this is laudable. But it is, unfortunately, what the Government has failed to do that is more significant. Aviation is the fastest-growing contributor to the process of climate change. Yet even a modest levy on airline fuel is apparently out of the question. There has been a similar paralysis from the Government over car emissions. The number of journeys by car is rising. And the Government's road-building programme continues apace. A bad smell lingers too from Labour's cave-in to fuel tax demonstrators six years ago, which saw the Chancellor suspend the environmentally-friendly fuel tax escalator.

While the UK is on target to meet its targets under the Kyoto protocol, its self-imposed goal of cutting emissions by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade is most unlikely to be hit without drastic action. Yet the Government refuses to consider statutory annual emissions targets, backed up by fines, as proposed by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, which would create a radically effective incentive for cuts. Instead, Mr Blair cites his decision to bolster the ailing nuclear power industry as evidence of his boldness on the environment.

The Prime Minister has certainly performed a valuable service by pushing the issue of climate change up the global agenda. Its prominence at last year's G8 summit in Gleneagles was welcome. But in terms of implementing policies at home that would make a real difference, Mr Blair has been a disappointment.

British politics seem in a strange limbo at present where the environment is concerned. There is now a consensus from all the major political parties in Britain that climate change is happening and that it presents an urgent threat to the planet. Environmentalism is part of the mainstream political dialogue in a way that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. But still painfully little is being done. The time for mutual congratulations, if it ever comes, will be a long way down the line.