We will pay a heavy price for the damage that we have done to our planet

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The Independent Online

We have, sadly, become used to the threat of extinction faced by such exotic creatures as the pygmy hippo, the golden lion tamarin and the Siberian tiger. But even the most environmentally pessimistic cannot have imagined that we would have to run a campaign to save the sparrow. Whatever the precise reasons for the precipitous decline in the numbers of this charming and once common bird, one suspects that it is not down to natural selection. Man and environmental degradation are implicated. All the more reason, then, to welcome the publication yesterday of the independent report commissioned by the Government on the long-term effects of climate change.

We have, sadly, become used to the threat of extinction faced by such exotic creatures as the pygmy hippo, the golden lion tamarin and the Siberian tiger. But even the most environmentally pessimistic cannot have imagined that we would have to run a campaign to save the sparrow. Whatever the precise reasons for the precipitous decline in the numbers of this charming and once common bird, one suspects that it is not down to natural selection. Man and environmental degradation are implicated. All the more reason, then, to welcome the publication yesterday of the independent report commissioned by the Government on the long-term effects of climate change.

When it came to power three years ago, New Labour promised that it would be "the first truly green government ever" and that it would "put the environment at the heart of government". The record of Mr Blair's administration in living up to those ambitious words has been mixed.

Ministers have also shown themselves timid in the face of opposition from the roads lobby. The Government failed to react quickly enough to the public's concerns about GM food. And, most egregiously, the Government has failed to tackle the continuing problems at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. Despite the efforts of Michael Meacher, the quietly persistent environment minister, it is Number 10 and the Treasury that drive policy, and it is all too clear that they think that there are no votes in the environment.

But on what could be called the "macro-environmental" issues, the Government has achieved rather more. It is right to be proud, for example, that Britain is at the forefront of nations meeting the Kyoto emissions reduction targets, and continues to take a lead in international efforts to reduce environmental damage. Yesterday's report - a world first - marks an important step towards practical policies to cope with climate change.

The challenges, as the report makes clear, are immense. Whole counties will become vulnerable to flooding. The countryside and wildlife will change forever. Climate change is inevitable and we will have to pay a heavy price for it, and not simply in landscapes despoiled, and wildlife - even such familiar creatures as the sparrow - being lost or greatly denuded.

Where the report was most valuable was in sensitising us to the reality that, either as taxpayers or as consumers, we must now pay for the excesses of the past. We must become used to the idea, for example, of increased taxation to pay for improved flood defences or higher construction costs so that new buildings and existing infrastructure, such as the electricity supply network, can withstand climate change.

Perhaps the one thing that is missing from this report, though, is context. For while this country could and should make its own contribution to the fight against global warming, the truth is that most of the battle needs to be fought - and is currently being lost - on fronts far away from these shores. The continuing stubborn resistance in America to energy saving looks set to remain a significant obstacle. And the rapid population and economic growth of India and China poses a still greater threat. Despite its daunting scale, the battle for the planet and the fight for the sparrow - for they are part of the same campaign - cannot start too soon.

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