Blair vows to push green issues back up the political agenda

The environment is set to take centre stage in the Government's policy making, according to Tony Blair, who sought to reaffirm his green credentials in a recent address to a meeting of environmentalists and the business world.

Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in his first major speech on the green issues for several years, declared: “It is time to re-awaken the environmental challenge as part of the core of British and international politics.”

In his analysis he saw environmental issues having slid back down the political agenda, after having seen governments becoming greener through the 1980s.

Addressing the CBI/Green Alliance Conference on the Environment on 24 October, the Prime Minister said he wanted to invite environmentalists and business to help push green issues back up the political agenda.

He also wanted to reawaken the challenge in a constructive partnership, involving government, business, the green movement and the public.

He acknowledged this would be “a partnership, not where we always agree – that would be an impossible demand, but where we have at least some common aims and understanding of each other’s necessary contribution to them.”

Mr Blair proposed a set of core principles that might be agreed:

  • that we proceed according to science and a set of common values
  • that we build a business case for the environment, working to harness clean technologies, seeing business as part of the answer rather than as the problem
  • that we acknowledge that technology alone will not fix things, and that there also has to be a framework, set by the government, within which business works
  • that we must seek global solutions to global problems, as we have done at the Climate Change summit at Kyoto
  • and that we must find new ways for people to play their part individually in developing a common agenda to improve quality of life
  • He warned, however, “We should not kid ourselves. There will be some areas of professional disagreement and others where there are hard choices between ideals and realism.”

    Issues for debate

    The Prime Minister cited three topical issues for debate. On petrol he said “We know the damage CO2 emissions do to our environment. Individual families experience air pollution. We also know many of these same families experience air pollution. We also know many of those same families depend on their car, especially in rural areas, to work, to take children to school, for leisure. We need to find a way through this for them, not simply pose two extremes, one of which is environmentally dangerous, the other of which is unrealistic.”

    Turning to housing Tony Blair said: “We are balancing the huge pressure to build in the south east, with the necessity to protect the countryside. We have rightly increased the proportion of new housing built on brownfield sites to 60%. But I am acutely aware that, for many, that is not enough. But even attaining that will be full of real political risks.”

    On the GM foods controversy, the PM stated that, contrary to the myth that wicked multi-nationals and politicians had pressed the public to be pro-GM, he was fully aware of the potential impact on biodiversity and people’s concern’s about health.

    I am neither pro nor anti,” Mr Blair told the meeting. “I simply say: let us evaluate the technology, test it, and then make a judgement; rather than ban it before we even look at it.”

    The Prime Minister continued: “These tensions are natural and we shouldn’t try to gloss over them. There are at points real conflict between the immediate interests of the environment, and, to be frank, between politicians’ need to woo the electorate as well as lead them.

    Threat to the environment

    Whilst acknowledging the UK’s progress on some environmental issues, where he said we were on track to meet our Kyoto targets, with air quality improving and London now having the cleanest river of any major city, Mr Blair said: “We have to face a stark fact. Neither we here in Britain, nor our partners abroad, have succeeded in reversing the overall destructive trend. The environmental challenge continues to grow and become more urgent.”

    He quoted a long list of threats to the environment, from alarming changes in our atmosphere, in global temperatures, in weather patterns, in sea levels and the protective ozone layer, to increased demand for fresh water, soil degradation and to the loss of the world’s wetlands and extinction of species.

    His call for a new approach to the environment would encourage businesses to see the profit in the new green technologies. The PM saw the greatest threat coming from climate change. He said we needed to use environmental resources more efficiently and to become a low carbon, recycling economy. Mr Blair also regarded emissions trading as “one of the most powerful ways of harnessing the market to cut greenhouse gases.”

    He also backs the development of commercially viable renewable energy where he says the government has a key role to play in assisting business to build up the economies of scale in these new technologies.

    Tony Blair’s view is that “It is increasingly clear that energy generation of the future will become a spectrum: from the cleaner extraction of energy from fossil fuels: through the move from liquid to cleaner gas fuels; new technologies that convert hydrocarbon fuels into energy without combustion; to, at its greenest end, the carbon-free technologies of wind and solar.”

    Appealing to the business element in the audience he said that the City and investment community was beginning to recognise the new commercial and environmental realities, and to make money out of them.

    Recycling and the market

    Mr Blair said on recycling that he wanted to do more to harness the power of the market. The new Waste Resource Action Programme(WRAP), led by business, would develop markets for recycled materials. A proposed further £50 million from The New Opportunities Fund would help provide kerbside recycling for 700,000 households.

    “I want to see every local authority offering doorstep recycling to take advantage of these new markets,” he declared.

    The Prime Minister also took the opportunity to announce formally the launch of the Sustainable Development Commission chaired by Jonathan Porrit.

    “On regulation,” Mr Blair said, “our aim must be to raise environmental standards without imposing unnecessary burdens on business.”

    Favourable response

    Despite some comment that the Prime Minister could be seen as chasing the green vote in the run up to the next election, his renewed commitment to tackling environmental issues was generally welcomed.

    Waste Watch welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement of £50 million for kerbside recycling schemes through The New Opportunities Fund.

    Also backing the commitment to extra funds to promote doorstep recycling and renewed efforts by the Government to purchase recyclables, the ESA says Britain’s waste and resource management industry is willing to go even further to achieve sustainability.

    According to Dirk Hazell, the association’s Chief Executive, “to achieve the sustainability ESA wants to see, more resources will be needed, whether provided by Government grant or by direct charges to consumers.

    The Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) was particularly pleased by the PM’s commitment to build a partnership with business to exploit the profits of new green technologies. Merlin Hyman, EIC Director, said his organisation would now be looking for Mr Blair “to follow up his rhetoric with real action. The UK needs to develop a package of Government support for environmental technologies and services, including investment incentives, R&D and export support measures which matches that provided by governments in our main competitor countries.”

    Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie