Leading article: The unfinished green revolution

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The Independent Online

One of the most pleasing aspects of this election campaign is the fact that climate change has become part of the discourse of mainstream politics. All three of the major parties have signed up in their manifestos to cut our national carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050.

They have also developed credible policies to help achieve that, which their respective environment spokesmen were pushing yesterday. Labour proposes to establish a green infrastructure bank and to promote home insulation. The Tories want to speed up the introduction of smart household electricity meters and to create incentives for communities to host on-shore wind farms. The Liberal Democrats pledge a tougher aviation tax and measures to encourage the household micro-generation of energy.

None of the manifestos are perfect on the environment. Labour's green credentials, in particular, are undermined by its backing for a new runway at Heathrow airport. And many rank-and-file Conservatives are still sceptical of the climate change agenda. Some also question whether the Liberal Democrats' aversion to nuclear power sits easily with their arguments about the urgency of the need to bring down emissions. But it would be unreasonable not to acknowledge that British politics has travelled a considerable distance on this issue. In the 2005 general election campaign, global warming barely got a mention. Now it is debated between serious politicians such as Ed Miliband, Greg Clark and Simon Hughes.

Yet, despite this manifest progress, there remains a strong sense in which the main parties are still shying away from the implications of their commitments. The various schemes for green energy production and conservation in the party manifestos are all laudable. But the sort of major shift in public behaviour that will be needed to reduce our carbon emissions will only come when the environmental cost of carbon emissions is factored in to what consumers pay for their goods and services. Whether this is brought about by a carbon tax or a global emission trading scheme, price rises in a whole host of areas will follow.

The major parties argue that such action must await international agreement on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol (which, thanks to the failure at the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen last December, looks dispiritingly far away). On one level, this stance is reasonable. It would do little good for Britain to impose taxes unilaterally. But our politicians should be doing more to prepare public opinion for this shift, rather than implying, as they do at the moment, that it will be a painless adjustment.

The problem is that our politicians are wary of going into any detail on the costs of forestalling climate change because they know opinion polls show that much of the public are still unconvinced of the science on the issue (a feeling that has been strengthened by the row over the leaked emails from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia). They also fear that any talk of rising household fuel bills will alienate voters, many of whom are still feeling the pain of recession.

So we have something of a paradox in which the mainstream parties all accept the need for serious action on global warming, but the public remain largely in the dark about the implications of that acceptance. This will ultimately prove unsustainable. The three main parties deserve credit for getting serious about climate change. But until they level with the British public about what this will mean for our way of life, this is destined to remain an unfinished green revolution.