Page last updated at 17:10 GMT, Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Darling: Turning the UK green?

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

New car. Image: AFP/Getty
Changes to help more efficient motoring are in the pipeline
After all the advance publicity that Alistair Darling's first Budget would have a green vein running inexorably through it, has the delivery matched the expectation?

A first hearing, as the chancellor rattled his way through the details like a high-speed train on a stormy night, produced the answer "No".

A more detailed read through the facts and figures supplied by the Treasury - and a look at the holes where the facts and figures might be - confirmed the accuracy of that initial diagnosis.

Of course, the advance rhetoric is rarely completely right, and perhaps some environmental groups and commentators were a touch over-optimistic - perhaps deliberately so, in the hope of provoking some last-minute green insertions.

They are not fawning over what has emerged.

Five-yearly carbon budgets to be announced in a year's time
Vehicle Excise Duty up to 425 for highest-polluting cars
VED rate higher in first year for gas-guzzlers (up to 950)
Zero first-year VED for cleaner vehicles
Planned fuel duty increase for April deferred to October
Legislation for tax on plastic bags next year unless retailers sort it out
Green Homes Service to get 26m in first year to help householders save energy
"Darling's safe pair of hands have dropped the ball on climate change," fumed John Sauven of Greenpeace.

"Tinkering with tax on planes and cars isn't going to reduce emissions when he's also promising new runways and roads.

"His measures have failed to match the scale of the challenge we face."

Christian Aid, one of the development groups that has increasingly picked up the climate change baton as it sees its good works being affected by the impacts of warming, was equally scathing.

"This budget was a missed opportunity for the government to show that it is serious about addressing the problem of climate change, which threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of the world's poorest people," it said in a statement.

Where the chancellor should have produced a "coherent package of fiscal measures to encourage emission reductions", it said, he had conjured merely "piecemeal suggestions".

On the high road

With road traffic accounting for about one-quarter of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and little sign of reduced demand for life on the congested tarmac or of startling technical revolutions to slash emissions, the Treasury acknowledges there is a need to get to grips with the car.

People will simply not make changes in their transport behaviour until we see significant investment in good quality public transport
Philip Mulligan
Environmental Protection UK
Whether the Budget achieves this is another matter. Vehicle Excise Duty will rise for higher-emitting cars, with the highest of all incurring a tariff of 425. Meanwhile, the cleanest - those emitting less than 100g CO2 per km - will pay nothing.

If you buy a new gas-guzzler in 2010-11, you will have to pay 950 for the first year's VED.

It is a short sharp shock which the Treasury hopes might make you think twice, though still falling far short of the 2,000 top-rated VED that environmental groups have long campaigned for.

Motorists' organisations have lauded the chancellor's decision to defer a 2p per litre hike in fuel duty; but it is debatable whether such a rise would have affected people's transport decisions anyway.

Over the last year, petrol and diesel retail prices have risen by about 20%, but the roads are not noticeably less crowded as a result.

If a 20p rise caused by escalating oil prices does not persuade people out of their cars, why would a 2p rise make any difference?

"The controversy over this 2p rise in duty really misses the point," said Philip Mulligan, chief executive of the anti-pollution charity Environmental Protection UK.

Airport protest. Image: PA
Environment groups would prefer an end to airport expansion
"People will simply not make changes in their transport behaviour until we see significant investment in good quality public transport."

Aviation, the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, provides perhaps the clearest indication that small budgetary changes can be swamped by real-world factors.

As he signalled in last year's Pre-Budget Report, Mr Darling is to change the current air passenger tax into a charge levied per flight from November next year.

Mr Darling now says that in the new levy's second year of operation, it will produce 10% more revenue than previously forecast.

The reason; a faster than expected rise in the number of flights.

Bag pussy

The aspect of the Budget most likely to grab headlines is the apparent determination to do something about disposable plastic bags.

But not yet. Retailers are given a year to come up with something that will slash the number of bags in circulation. If they do not, Mr Darling will legislate, although why he will do so under the Climate Change Bill is a puzzle, as retail waste is not principally a climate issue.

With the Daily Mail mounting a vociferous campaign to de-bag Britain's high streets, the measure may produce press applause.

But Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation (Nef), sees things differently.

BBC Green Room logo

"The chancellor has done something popular in regards to a charge on plastic bags; but in that regard we are behind New Delhi and the whole of Bangladesh which has completely banned plastic bags," he commented.

Earlier this week, the BBC News website asked Mr Simms, one of Britain's leading thinkers in the field where environmental concerns meet economics, to provide a recipe book for the green tax smorgasbord he wanted Mr Darling to serve up for the nation's delectation.

The key, he argued, was that the Budget needed to put the nation on track to becoming a society that would not make a major contribution to climate change, and would be resilient to the impacts of climate change.

"On this measure, he doesn't get past first base," he said after digesting the chancellor's offering.

"Alistair Darling is called a 'safe pair of hands', but he comes across as a novice juggler who keeps dropping the environment.

"I think Gordon Brown was also a late arrival on taking environmental issues seriously; and if this is a reflection of a wider government position, there is still no sign that the penny has dropped."

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