Hard talk

When it comes to saving the planet, says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves, tough decisions need not always be bad ones.

The environment barely figured in the last election. In fact, green issues are still so unimportant electorally that, last year, the government admitted it would not meet its own targets on carbon emissions, and that it was prepared to build thousands of new homes in parts of the UK most at risk from flooding. Unlike other political issues, the environment didn’t even merit a lie – and the media barely gave it a mention.

The sad fact is this: our political system is gripped by a culture where politicians openly acknowledge the importance of environmental issues, knowing as they utter the words that business as usual is the order of the day.

This cannot go on. The vile hot breath of carbon emissions is heating up the planet. The world’s largest frozen peat bog, in an area of Siberia the size of France and Germany combined, is melting – and in the process releasing billions of tonnes of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. Rapidly encroaching and more regular floods, droughts, water scarcity and glacial meltdown are all evidence of the sheer pressure of our numbers, our profligacy and our unrelenting desire to meet our ‘needs’ at any cost.

No nonsense

It’s time for tough decisions. For instance, government must review its position on aviation. With no technofix solutions in sight, aircraft will continue to be the most polluting form of travel and will kill off any hope we have of reducing carbon emissions. Aviation and tourism combined are a powerful lobby, however, and the government will not want to take them on. The true environmental cost should be laid bare for all to see. Air fuel should be taxed and the days of cheap flights consigned to the hangar. No more new airports, and discredited ‘predict and provide’ replaced by demand management. The public must be forced to recognise its real-world choice: take holidays closer to home or destroy the planet.

The second tough decision for the government is whether or not to go for the nuclear option. Cynics are suggesting that the new-look DTI will be the platform for Tony Blair’s plans to go nuclear. Talk of a cabinet split, with environment secretary Margaret Beckett arguing the case against nuclear, suggests that we’re in for a real scrap on this.

Although relatively carbon-neutral, nuclear power is hugely expensive and would suck expenditure from investment in truly clean energy. It would also leave a frightening legacy of toxic radioactive waste for millennia.

The government should, in my opinion, make a concerted push for renewables and encourage emerging technologies with comprehensive legal and financial backing that shows it is serious about sustainability. Wind and solar energy should be made available to householders, and programmes to reduce consumption introduced across the board. In the longer term full-scale carbon rationing might be necessary, but this is way off the political agenda. So, in the meantime, let’s hear it for short-term measures such as an immediate moratorium on new road-building and motorway-widening. All the experts agree: more and wider roads simply means more vehicles. The billions of pounds saved could be spent on promoting cycling and walking, thereby improving people’s health and saving the NHS billions more.

But transport is another powerful lobby, one which has shown itself in the past to be most adept at blackmailing government. This is despite the fact that, according to DEFRA’s own figures, greenhouse gas emissions from road haulage spiralled by 38% between 1990 and 2002. The haulage sector is now responsible for almost as much pollution as cars, and more even than air transport. Transport is a truculent, short-sighted political lobby to which the government must face up, lest it hold up any prospect of progress.

Every little helps itself

Of course the supermarkets, which operate highly centralised lorry-based distribution networks over vast distances at huge environmental cost, are just as culpable. They favour imported produce over locally grown food, they make car-based shopping almost impossible to avoid, and they destroy community cohesion by putting small shops out of business. However, now that many communities are trying to reject new developments, the supermarkets’ tyranny is in remission, and local economies can rebuild. Farmers’ markets are becoming popular – and this, with the interest in organics, should be encouraged.

However, farmland biodiversity is still in free-fall. Once-common songbirds such as the thrush and skylark, increasingly under threat from chemical-dependent farmers, are now a rare sight. 20% of all species are set to disappear, and the situation is likely to be worsened by the introduction of GM crops – just one reason why the government should withdraw its support.

None of these measures can be implemented by environmentalists – it is the government that must act. Tough decisions need not always be bad ones. And Margaret Beckett at DEFRA has shown a strong commitment to her brief and to tackling climate change. But the key levers of delivery are not in her hands. DEFRA has the targets, but the DTI has the power stations, Transport the cars, and the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office the houses and the planning regimes.

Meantime, there’s something reassuring about targets for greenhouse gas emissions 50 years in the future – because not a single member of the current Parliament will still be there in 2050.

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