Our political parties are ducking vital green issues

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This was billed as the year that the world would face up to climate change and the runaway degradation of our natural environment. Tony Blair promised that he would use Britain's presidency of the G8 to put global warming at the top of the international agenda. But a general election seems to have banished those good intentions. Since this campaign began, the debate about green issues has been virtually non-existent. The Tories found no room for the environment in their slim-line manifesto. In Labour's more comprehensive publication, it appeared to be an after-thought. And tellingly, it did not feature on their pledge card. To their credit, the Liberal Democrats stressed the environmental sustainability of all their manifesto commitments. But when their larger rivals seem determined to avoid a debate about the environment, there is only so much they can do. By refusing to take the environment seriously, our politicians are ignoring one of the most serious challenges of our times.

This was billed as the year that the world would face up to climate change and the runaway degradation of our natural environment. Tony Blair promised that he would use Britain's presidency of the G8 to put global warming at the top of the international agenda. But a general election seems to have banished those good intentions. Since this campaign began, the debate about green issues has been virtually non-existent. The Tories found no room for the environment in their slim-line manifesto. In Labour's more comprehensive publication, it appeared to be an after-thought. And tellingly, it did not feature on their pledge card. To their credit, the Liberal Democrats stressed the environmental sustainability of all their manifesto commitments. But when their larger rivals seem determined to avoid a debate about the environment, there is only so much they can do. By refusing to take the environment seriously, our politicians are ignoring one of the most serious challenges of our times.

This newspaper has long campaigned for environmental issues to take a prominent place on the political agenda. The reasons are simple. At home, the environment affects the quality of life of every one of us, touching on issues as diverse as health, education, poverty and inequality. Internationally, the question of sustainability is even more important. The rural economies in the developing world are heavily dependent on the natural environment; anyone seriously committed to international development must be equally committed to sustainable ecological development.

Overshadowing all of this is the colossal challenge of global warming. This is something that Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, regards as a greater threat than international terrorism. A steady outpouring of evidence confirms that this is no careless hyperbole. There is a consensus amongst scientists that if we continue to produce carbon emissions at the present rate, the world will reap catastrophic consequences. Sea levels will rise, imperilling many coastal developments. Vast inland areas will become uninhabitable. Many species of wildlife will become extinct.

As the official Opposition, the Tories might have been expected to make the most of this issue. Instead, their cost-cutting exercise proposals include the dismantling of a key environmental agency. Some of their proposals, such as including aviation in the European Union's emissions trading scheme, have merit but the truth is that the modern Tory party has yet to fully engage with the green agenda. It may come to rue this mistake.

The Government deserves some credit for its achievements. We are on course to meet our commitments under the Kyoto protocol to cut our carbon emissions by 2010. But Britain is still falling far short of what is required. The Government is unlikely to reach its more ambitious emissions cutting targets. And Labour's transport strategy has been deeply disappointing. The 2001 manifesto proclaimed that the Government would greatly increase the number of train journeys made by Britons. In four years, the number has risen by just 5 per cent. By building more roads, the Government has sent contradictory signals about car use. And it has shied away from more radical proposals such as road charging, which is raised by the Liberal Democrats in their manifesto, and the introduction of fuel duties for aviation, while soft-pedalling on renewable energy schemes.

This drift cannot go on. Unless we start now to lock-in measures that will drastically cut carbon emissions and protect the world's green spaces, we will pay a much heavier price in years to come. And for that to happen the environment must become a political issue. Let the debate commence.

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