There is little sign of any green vision from our political leaders

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Protecting the environment is like motherhood: most people (at least in principle) are in favour of it. So it was no surprise yesterday to hear, at the Vote Environment 2001 debate organised by Britain's leading green pressure groups in association with this newspaper, the environmental spokesmen of the three main political parties each laying out a comprehensive range of policies aimed at satisfying the most demanding green-minded voter.

Protecting the environment is like motherhood: most people (at least in principle) are in favour of it. So it was no surprise yesterday to hear, at the Vote Environment 2001 debate organised by Britain's leading green pressure groups in association with this newspaper, the environmental spokesmen of the three main political parties each laying out a comprehensive range of policies aimed at satisfying the most demanding green-minded voter.

Just as the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight, in Dr Johnson's unendingly quoted words, concentrates a man's mind wonderfully, so a looming general election makes your office-hungry politician master every fine detail of his brief. Thus, when Michael Meacher, for Labour, Damian Green, for the Conservatives, and Don Foster, for the Liberal Democrats, addressed the green agenda before a knowledgeable audience, they all seemed to have intelligent answers to every question.

The debates were intended to raise the profile of the environment as an issue for the general election, provoke some policy competition and act as a hustings, so that all those green promises could be directly compared. But on first sight, it seemed that on so many issues one could not squeeze a cigarette paper in the gap between the parties.

More organic farming? Yes please, they chorused. More energy efficiency? Yes, they all want that, too. Lower emissions of the greenhouse gases causing climate change? An absolute priority for them all. Commercial growth of GM crops? Not until we know they don't cause environmental damage, they trilled. The little-known chemicals that are beginning to accumulate in the natural world and perhaps also in human bodies? A matter of grave concern.

But under this surface of seamless sympathy for the green cause were the cracks that showed how to differentiate between the parties on how we care for our planet. In the light of the debate, we can offer some pointers on an issue that we believe to be vital, and one that we are determined to prevent getting pushed off the agenda in the run-up to the election.

Firstly, voters must listen carefully, not only to the detail but also to the emphasis and even to the tone as the party leaders lay out their grandiose plans and pledges.

Take housing and the countryside. The Labour Government's record, after a shaky start, is fairly good: it has a target of building 60 per cent of new homes on brownfield land and has issued new planning guidance to bring that about. But it was not something Mr Meacher chose to mention yesterday, until - rightly - it was raised by Mr Green, who said he was "gobsmacked" the issue was not even on the day's agenda.

The conclusion is simple: although no party is going to agree to "concreting over the countryside", for the Tories, this is a visceral, high-priority issue, in a way it is not for Labour.

A similar difference can be detected behind the general agreement on the need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide which, all countries now accept, are causing the world's atmosphere to heat up with potentially disastrous consequences. It concerns the climate change levy, the new energy tax. The Government has just concluded a series of painfully negotiated agreements with sectors of industry that are heavy energy users: in return for a lightening of their levy burden, these firms will bring in detailed energy-efficiency schemes. This should go a long-way to reducing British industry's CO2 emissions, but the Tories, ever mindful of the interests of their friends in big business, would simply scrap the whole arrangement and rely on incentives rather than taxes - offering carrots but no sticks. So are their stated targets to cut CO2, therefore, as realistic as Labour's?

Second, look out for what is left unsaid. Omissions can be every bit as important as proclaimed policies, something some of the more experienced activists present yesterday quickly picked up on.

For Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth, it was the absence of any reference to the effects of economic globalisation, and how mushrooming free trade makes it increasingly hard for environmental protection policies to be truly international; for Graham Wynne, head of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, it was the lack of an overarching vision of the future of our crisis-hit countryside.

He was right: there is a lack of vision among the politicians. True, they have plenty of green ideas, and as yesterday's debate showed, these are well-articulated. But their solutions were tactical rather than strategic. The majority of the policies put forward were detailed, costed, thought-through and rational, but narrowly targeted and short-term. Only the Liberal Democrats, to give credit where it is due, have a climate change strategy that goes beyond the first decade of this century, and a draft manifesto that looks at the environmental effects of every other policy. Their rivals should follow suit.

This lack of vision means that that the environment, which will, beyond any doubt, become the world's most pressing concern this century, is not yet "at the heart of government" despite Tony Blair's fabled promise. And this, ultimately, remains a matter for Tony Blair himself, who has failed to convince us that he has a genuine understanding of the importance of the green agenda.

Opposition parties tend to react and tailor their policies to what they see opposite them; only a national leader can effect that seismic shift in the political process which is necessary to induce a new way of looking at the world.

It took a Franklin D Roosevelt to bring in the New Deal; it would take a man of equivalent vision to bring in the Green Deal. Very shortly Mr Blair will be making another major speech on the environment; Britain's green movement, and Britain's environmentally concerned voters, will be hanging on his every word.

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