Leading article: The green gap between concern and action


The opinion survey by the Energy Saving Trust is encouraging in parts. Around 80 per cent of the public believe that climate change is a major problem and want the Government to let them know what they can do to save energy. A similar proportion believes that climate change will have an adverse effect on them and their families. This is heartening because it shows that the message about the scale of the threat is getting through; so too is the message about how we can reduce the impact of global warming. According to the survey, a majority regard reducing energy use in the home as a "virtuous" activity.

The problem is that such good intentions are not being translated into action. Only 60 per cent of those questioned are actually doing something to reduce their personal energy use. The numbers of households installing cavity wall and loft installation remains static. And there is resistance to environmentally friendly measures such as green taxes, road pricing and carbon rationing. Only a third of those questioned regarded such initiatives as "socially acceptable".

The Trust calls this "the green gap". It is not a new idea. The argument is that while we pay lip service to the seriousness of climate change, when it comes to doing something about it we are resistant. There is a parallel here with the Government. Last month's Climate Change Bill set bold targets for reducing emissions. It was hailed by ministers and pundits as a great achievement. But this government has consistently shied away from taking the necessary action to bring emissions down. Again, we see good intentions but little follow-through.

Individuals can - and must - make a difference. But it is essential that the Government sets a framework that allows, encourages - and in some cases forces - us to do so. A good justification for this can be found in the survey. A third of people say they are prepared to choose a holiday destination that does not require flying. But only 4 per cent have done so, mainly because flying is so cheap. That is why the Government should make it more expensive to fly by taxing aviation fuel and imposing an environmental levy on each flight.

There does seem to be popular resistance to green taxes, road pricing and carbon rationing. But, reading between the lines, this seems to be due as much to a mistrust of the Government as to hostility to such measures in themselves. The public is worried these would simply be about raising revenue, rather than part of a serious attempt to reduce emissions. The Chancellor did nothing to alleviate such fears when he introduced a £5 levy on flights last year arguing that it was necessary on environmental grounds. This was too small to have any chance of changing behaviour, yet big enough to cause resentment at another perceived stealth tax.

And, of course, there are things that individuals, on their own, can barely influence. Electricity generation is a case in point. People can cut down on their energy usage, but due to the relatively small number of suppliers, the scope for using customer choice to encourage low-carbon energy production is small. This is where the Government has to take a lead by boosting the renewables market. Ministers must also make alternatives to driving much more attractive. And of course, it is the responsibility of the Government to push for the creation of a new international global emissions reduction treaty to replace the Kyoto protocol.

Too often the struggle against climate change is presented as one that can be fought either on an individual level, or through government action. The truth is that both are necessary if we are to avoid the cataclysm of runaway global warming.

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