Leading Article: Greenery chokes in wrong climate

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The Independent Online
ASK PEOPLE if they are in favour of clean air and water, quiet streets, better public transport and protecting the ozone layer and the majority will step forward as keen environmentalists. Ask them if they want to pay more for domestic heating, motor fuels, road use and Third World products and the answers will be equivocal or negative. Environmentalism costs money and political capital.

This is likely to be reflected in four government reports to be published today covering forestry, bio- diversity, carbon dioxide emissions and sustainable development. These are not the result of a new wave of official enthusiasm for the environment. Rather, they represent Arnold's 'melancholy long withdrawing roar' applied to declining faith in greenery since its high point in the Eighties, when the Green Party was in the ascendant and Margaret Thatcher was converted to the cause. The reports fulfil international obligations entered into at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Mr Gummer, in an interview in this paper yesterday, accused people of having double standards - of wanting better public transport to take others off the roads. He appeared to forget that environmental policies require either coercion or financial incentives. A few years ago the Government said that it would opt for the latter, but it has lacked courage and conviction. True, a few green taxes have been introduced, but these have been concerned more with raising revenue than putting green wrongs right. In general, the Government has been guided less by environmental concern than by the constraints of tight budgets, lobby pressures and signs that the public may be developing environmental fatigue. Like compassion fatigue, this sets in when gloom overloads the sensibilities of the average person and remedies seem out of reach.

With a little more courage on the part of the Government, the environment could by now have benefited from a sensible mix of taxes and subsidies in areas such as emissions of toxic chemicals and disposal of awkward wastes. The United States and Scandinavian nations have these arrangements and they work. They could work in Britain too, but the Government has been too timid. Professor David Pearce, formerly one of its principal advisers, accuses it of shrinking from necessary measures.

It seems that 'sustainable development', to which the Government is pledged, is politically unsustainable in today's climate. It needs either very strong government or very strong public pressure. Neither is available. This is bad news for us and our children.