Expect a lot more hot air: The Government is unveiling plans for the environment, but don't hold your breath, says Geoffrey Lean

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BACK IN the brief, balmy summer of John Major's high content - half-way between his surprise election triumph and the shambles of Black Wednesday - the Prime Minister went up a mountain to see Christ.

He, like other heads of state at the Earth Summit in June 1992, climbed the twisting road to the statue of Jesus that hangs above Rio. They went to admire the spectacular view - and to be photographed standing in the embrace of the Redeemer. Sadly, on Mr Major's visit, the beautiful weather broke and, as the cloud came down, he was left to murmur about how marvellous the view must be, if only he could see it.

It was a good metaphor for his performance at the Earth Summit. We faced, he said, 'the destruction of the globe' and he had 'the determination to act'. Yet vision eluded him. He announced little except a scientific research programme dubbed the Darwin Initiative. 'We have not even offered peanuts,' said one jaded Briton, 'so we are dragging out the Beagle.'

On Tuesday the next act in this drama of disappointed expectations will be played out in Whitehall's ornate banqueting house. Mr Major will launch six documents setting out Britain's plans to implement the decisions reached at Rio. But the occasion looks like conforming to the old Whitehall rule that it is best to use an impressive location if you want to disguise the fact that you have nothing much to say.

The 'action plans' will be long on rhetoric, short on new commitments for definite clean-up targets. And they will be launched as the British government continues the most determined attempt for many years to roll back environmental regulations.

Even the most important target that will be announced on Tuesday - an attempt to stabilise emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming - seems a triumph of hope over inexperience. Such targets have been set before but investment in energy saving, the only real way to achieve them, has lagged.

Ten years ago ministers announced that they would cut Britain's energy bill by a fifth within a decade. In fact the Government has scrapped almost all its energy-saving programmes. For the last three successive years carbon dioxide emissions have increased while GDP has declined; such a reduction in energy efficiency has only happened in one previous year in the last half-century.

Mr Major will now make a new promise - to ensure that 10 million tonnes less carbon dioxide will be emitted in the year 2000 than present projections suggest. This saving is supposed to come through a variety of routes: energy saving in government buildings; the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel; saving in industry and commerce; increases in petrol taxes; and an Energy Saving Trust, headed by the former cabinet minister Lord Moore.

It looks pretty unlikely. Ministers are in the middle of a five-year campaign to cut energy wastes in government buildings by 15 per cent - after two and a half years it has only succeeded in increasing energy use. Imposing VAT on domestic fuel, designed to raise money rather than to save energy, is likely to be almost equally ineffective: the Government itself admits that businesses which have had to pay VAT on fuel for the last five years have done virtually nothing to save energy as a result.

Energy prices are low and falling so there is little incentive for industry to meet the Government's target. Increasing petrol taxes may help a little, but any effect must be outweighed by the huge increase in the number of cars forecast by the Department of Transport. The Energy Saving Trust says it will need pounds 1.6bn in the next six years to do the job. So far it looks like getting less than a fifth of this.

The rest of the proposals launched on Tuesday will make much ado over even less. There are some slight improvements. After strong campaigning by the Department of Transport, the Government will be less bullish about the private car than in the past. 'There are,' says one top official, 'some important and significant shifts in language.'

Mr Major will announce a new committee of the great and the greenish, headed by the formidable Sir Crispin Tickell, to advise him on policy, plus two groups to canvass expert and local community views. Officials are busily talking these up as a major rearrangement of Whitehall machinery that will lead to real change.

Perhaps it will, but we have all been around this course twice before, to little effect. In 1990 the Government produced an environment White Paper - billed as the new Beveridge Report - which contained virtually nothing new. We were told that a new committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, would make all the difference. It met once, and then disappeared.

The next year ministers set up a committee of top industrialists, headed by Sir John Collins, chairman of Shell. It did meet and produced excellent recommendations but these were almost all rejected or shelved by the Government.

Meanwhile, in the real world, ministers are delaying or abandoning environmental commitment and campaigning to weaken anti-pollution laws. Only last month Mr Major's staff boasted that he had scored a personal triumph in persuading the European Union to weaken directives on water pollution. The budgets and staff of the two major anti-pollution agencies, HM Inspectorate of Pollution and the National Rivers Authority, are being cut, and a pledge, given in 1987, to set legally enforceable standards for river water quality is not being honoured.

Five times as many people as in the mid-1980s - 19 million - have to breathe air that breaches EU recommended safety standards. In November a government study showed that the wildlife and beauty of the countryside was seriously deteriorating, but it has repeatedly delayed, and may well abandon, an election pledge to protect hedgerows. The roads programme alone threatens more than 160 wildlife sites. Britain's main laboratory for monitoring pollution is being closed.

Perhaps the launch on Tuesday in the banqueting house really will mark the start of a determination to implement the spirit of Rio. But, as one prime ministerial adviser privately said last week, 'don't hold your breath'.

(Photograph omitted)