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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 19:04 GMT
Climate change and environmentalism
Map showing how climate change could affect the UK  - all areas could get warmer over the next 80 years
Concern for the long-term future of the environment remains strong - but are voters prepared to support real change?

Environmental policy is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, Westminster retains responsibility for primary environmental policies over Wales and UK-wide policies which involve the taxation system, such as fuel tax.


BACKGROUND

While the Green Party's fortunes have declined since its 15% share of the vote at the 1989 European Elections, environmental issues remain high on the voters' agenda - and even more so after last year's floods brought devastation to parts of the UK.

About five million people belong to wildlife, conservation and environmental organisations, several of which have far higher memberships than all the political parties combined.

Most important issues to voters (RSPB research)
68%: Health care
60%: Education
52%: Law/order
40%: Taxation
39%: Environment
August 2000 (1892 people polled)
Research in 2000 for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggested that voters viewed the future of the environment as the fifth most important issue facing the UK.

However, the research also suggested that people did not know which party to turn to over the issues.

What is not in doubt is that many environmental aspirations conflict with what motorists see as the personal liberties of the car economy.

People may say they want less pollution, but few appear prepared to give up the car.

Environmental lobbyists also express frustration at the cyclical nature of the debate - with support appearing to wane during any economic downturn.

That said, the environmental movement has done well out of new voting systems for devolved government in Scotland, London - as well as gaining seats in the European Parliament.

While all three main parties have developed taxation policies to encourage less environmentally damaging behaviour, campaigners continue to question whether Labour or the Conservatives are prepared to champion true reform, be it in agriculture or the atmosphere.


GREEN GOVERNMENT?

When Labour took office in 1997, it said it would be "the first truly green government ever".

Green lobby policy demands
Habitat protection
Support for eco-technologies
Backing for renewable energy
Subsidies for rural protection not agri-production
Green tax commission
Marine life sanctuaries
Environmentalists have praised the intentions of two of the four ministers at the heart of green policy - deputy prime minister John Prescott and environment minister Michael Meacher.

But they complain about lack of action from either Chancellor Gordon Brown or Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has made only two speeches on the environment in four years.

Paul Jefferiss, director of the Green Alliance summed it up last year when he said: "We hope to see more political muscle ... what we haven't seen so far is real political support for good departmental initiatives."

But Labour denies ignoring environmental issues, citing the lead it took at the Kyoto climate change talks in 1997.

In a speech last October, Tony Blair outlined carrot-and-stick initiatives - grants for investment in cleaner technology and renewable energy paid for by taxing industries that chose to continue polluting.

The 1999 Budget contained more than 20 measures described by the government as green - and introduced environmental taxes on pollution and waste, including measures to curb the use of company cars.

In the most recent budget, duty was cut on cleaner ultra low sulphur fuel - though environmentalists argue that the fuel is not that clean.

Conservative leader William Hague said the real test of the government's green credentials was where it stood on the prevention of greenfield development, genetically modified crops and protection of agriculture.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy dismissed Labour's measures, saying they had "ghettoised" environmental issues rather than putting them at the heart of policy making.

But there was praise from Friends of the Earth.

It said the prime minister had "thrown down a green gauntlet to the other party leaders" and had finally come up with some "joined up thinking" on the environment by taking into account the scientific case for everything from climate change to sustainable agriculture.


Map showing how all areas of the UK could get wetter because of climate change over the next 80 years
CLIMATE CHANGE

The floods in autumn 2000 brought environmental concerns to the fore.

Climate change evidence?
Short-term temperature rises
Historical temperature rises
Sea level rising
Polar ice melting
Source: Hadley Centre/Met Office
And there could be worse to come.

The Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Change Research says that the number of days of very heavy rain in the UK could increase substantially as the south experiences wetter winters and the north wetter summers.

The economic cost attributed to climate change is huge.

Last year's floods caused damage estimated at 750m, according to the Association of British Insurers.

But Labour says climate change has been at the heart of its policy making from day one.

Shortly after the 1997 general election, Tony Blair and John Prescott signed the UN-sponsored Kyoto protocol which established mechanisms to reduce worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases.

The European Union agreed to reduce its emissions by 8%; the United States signed up to a reduction of 7% and Japan agreed to a cut of 6%.


FROM KYOTO TO FAILURE

But a follow-up meeting at The Hague in November 2000 ended in failure when ministers could not agree on how to achieve the Kyoto targets.

John Prescott blamed France for pulling out of a last-minute compromise agreed between the EU and the US.

But the French minister Dominque Voynet accused Mr Prescott of being "macho", before going on to blame the US.

"Nothing could have been accepted that would have allowed the US, the planet's main polluter, not to make a serious commitment to cutting emissions," she said.

This, in turn, sparked a political row at home as the Conservatives accused John Prescott of a "crash-bang-wallop" approach to negotiations.

The Liberal Democrats' spokesman Don Foster criticised the failure to reach agreement - but said the proposals appeared to have been so weak that "this was one of those times when no deal is better than a bad deal."

Months later, those who had pushed so hard for the Kyoto agreement are left asking where to now after what could be the death blow to internationally agreed climate controls.

US President George W Bush has made it clear that as far as he is concerned, Kyoto is history.

The decision has dismayed governments around the western world - but it will not halt work to ratify the protocol as a first step towards tackling climate change.

And if ratification goes ahead without the US, that might seriously affect its business and industry.

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