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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 21:47 GMT 22:47 UK
Contract to end environmental evils
David Miliband and Douglas Alexander

Personal responsibility and collective action saved 19th Century Britain from social evils, say UK Environment Secretary David Miliband and Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander. In this week's Green Room, they argue that a similar approach is needed to deliver us from a looming environmental crisis.

Climate protester's placard in bright sunshine (Getty Images)
The debate is no longer about whether climate change is happening but how it can be stabilised
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, progressives forged a new social contract between citizens and the state. Progressive values, new developments in social science, and popular concern came together to deliver social justice.

In the 21st century, we must find the same combination if we are to address environmental security. An environmental contract needs to set out the rights and responsibilities of government, businesses, and individuals.

The ingredients are in place. Just as Charles Booth's maps of 19th Century London highlighted abject poverty, today, new scientific evidence is bringing home the scale, impact and causes of climate change.

As Sir David Attenborough has highlighted, the debate is no longer about whether climate change is happening but how it can be stabilised.

Taking control

Anyone who says idealism is dead in politics needs to look at the popular concern around the globe at what is happening, in our lifetime, to our planet.

But the political challenge now must be to translate the concern and fear people feel over the future of our planet into hope, confidence and action.

It is striking that when asked about their personal future, 58% of people are optimistic, and just 9% pessimistic. But when asked about the direction of society as a whole, the picture is reversed. Just 24% are optimists and 43% are pessimists.

At a time when we feel more freedom and confidence about our own lives, we feel pessimistic and powerless to improve the way we live together.

Rock star Bono addressing a Labour Party conference (Image: PA)
Civil society and state must work together

In the last century, the social evils of idleness, ignorance, and disease were addressed through personal responsibility allied to collective action.

In this century, we need the same combination to address climate change: an environmental contract that creates a shared understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each citizen, business and nation.

Without local and national action, we lose our power and leverage internationally. Without action on a global scale, we cannot convince British citizens and businesses that their actions will be backed up by others.

Green profits

Every part of British society must play its part: business, government and civil society. The challenge and the opportunity for the private sector is clear.

General Electric chairman Jeffrey Immelt commented recently that climate change technologies are going to be at the centre of company's profit strategy in the next decade. Green technologies - from renewables to fuel cells - can be one of the key jobs and wealth generators of the coming years.

Government also has a clear role. Most markets do not factor in environmental costs, such as carbon emissions. They fail to protect scarce resources. But when these market failures are addressed, and environmental costs are "designed in", for example through emissions trading schemes which put a price on carbon, markets can be a powerful way of achieving results.

Yet changing behaviour is not a task that can be left to government or markets alone.

We must forge a new environmental contract that creates a new role for markets, the state and civil society

The challenge is for civil society - the thousands of voluntary and community sector organisations campaigning for the environment - to work with citizens and local government to create green communities.

In energy efficiency and micro-generation, we know that information and incentives are necessary but insufficient. People change their behaviour based on the norms within their area - the shared expectation and willingness of a whole community to become more environmentally sustainable.

Universal effort

Over the coming years we must forge a new environmental contract that creates a new role for markets, the state and civil society in each sector of British life. Forging this new contract requires every department in government to take action.

The obligation to tackle climate change does not rest with one government department. Departments including transport, housing, trade and industry and the treasury all have roles and responsibilities.

As Housing Minister Yvette Cooper set out last week, we need to radically change the homes we live in. We must use building regulations and planning to move towards all new homes becoming carbon neutral. Through exemplar developments in the Thames Gateway, government investment can accelerate innovation.

In the energy review, we are looking at how to reduce demand for energy, increase energy efficiency and develop new low carbon fuel sources that can meet the gap in energy supply.

Passenger looking out of an aeroplane's window
High hopes? The UK is pushing for aircraft emissions to be tradeable

In transport we are looking at how we can use markets for environmental ends. That is why in Dublin last week the British Government continued to push our European partners to include the aviation sector in the emissions trading scheme as an effective means for the industry to reduce its share of emissions.

We want a clean, low carbon transport system with fuel efficient vehicles and low emissions of harmful pollutants. That is why we are obliging all suppliers of transport fuel in the UK to ensure that a certain percentage of their annual sales are made up of biofuels. This will introduce 5% of biofuels into annual sales by 2010, resulting in a net saving of about a million tonnes of carbon every year - the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road.

And in the years ahead we will continue to put sustained investment into public transport to improve reliability of journeys by rail, light rail and bus and to give people a real alternative to travelling by car.

In the last century, progressives forged a social contract that saved capitalism from itself. In this century, the task is now to address environmental degradation with the same moral passion and practical rigour as we continue to address human degradation. That is our responsibility and our opportunity in this young century.

David Miliband is the UK Government's Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Douglas Alexander is the UK Government's Secretary of State for Transport

Over the coming weeks, the environmental spokesmen for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will outline their visions

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC news website

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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