We store cookies on your device to make sure we give you the best experience on this website. I'm fine with this - Turn cookies off
Switch to an accessible version of this website which is easier to read. (requires cookies)

What price our planet?

April 1, 2004 12:00 AM
By Mark Hinnells in Challenge

Mark Hinnells responds to Charles Kennedy's speech on the environment at the Royal United Services Institute in March

Charles Kennedy has had a tough time of it recently, with illness, and stories in the press of visitations from senior parliamentarians. And if there is one thing a leader needs to keep him in the limelight, it's an issue on which he shows leadership. Paddy had Bosnia: this was one issue that could get him regular airtime and name recognition and mark out his leadership qualities as head and shoulders above others.

When Charles took over, the first big media story was about his relaxed attitude to drugs. When the Government and the Tories were moving in a broadly reactionary direction, this was an issue that could mark out our leader's view of the world from a liberal standpoint. But there has been little follow-up.

Europe, we know, is an issue he is passionate about. The single currency is an issue where he has - rightly - chided the Government frequently and loudly on its failure to make the case for early entry into the single currency. But this is not an issue that chimes with the voters and it hasn't attracted the media attention it deserves.

Then there was Iraq. Charles, the demands of the Party ringing in his ears, took a principled stand against the war. He came in for a lot of criticism for his principled opposition to the war and it has cost him dear, but he was right.

However, the case continues to need to be made. The war was supposed to prevent Saddam making links with terrorists. Yet with Iraq's leaky borders, and the magnet of defending a Muslim state from the infidel Americans, there are undeniably more insurgents in Iraq now than there were before the war, and probably with access to whatever arms or weapons the former regime had. And who can now say that the world is safer from terrorism as a result of the war, following the Madrid bombings and warnings from the Metropolitan Police that a terrorist attack in London is 'inevitable'.

The environment is an issue that is begging to be made front page news. Voters are, I believe, aching to find an environmental champion, especially as the Government has such a lamentable record.

I remember that, as early as March 2000 in his speech to the Plymouth Spring conference, Charles had marked out the environment as an issue that he would make his own.

So I went to listen to Charles' much-trailed speech on the environment looking for a principled presentation that would give Charles the issue on which he can stand out and command attention and respect.

Sharing a platform with the RSPB, WWF and Green Alliance was promising. And the speech started well: "Every now and then each Party leader makes a speech on the environment. It ticks the box; it gives a new coat of green paint to freshen up the Party for another year. This is not one of those speeches. This is part of a concerted and determined effort by the Liberal Democrats to push the environment up the political agenda and keep it there."

This was promising. The speech had the conventional structure of apocalyptic messages, (notably the chief scientist's warning that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism), followed by criticism of the Government ("Labour isn't acting on the environment, and it isn't even listening"), followed by outlining what the Liberal Democrats stand for.

However - and this is something for which we must all accept responsibility - the set of solutions preferred by Charles was a list of oft-rehearsed minor measures, such as removing VAT from insulation materials and shifting taxation on air travel from passengers to aircraft. Important tools, undoubtedly. But not big ideas.

We have to face the fact that what we proposed ten years ago as a radical are now so much part of the mainstream that even the Tories support them. So here are five big ideas that Charles may like to consider for when he next makes a keynote environmental speech.

Big idea number one is to move from the Government's 'predict and provide' approach to airports, housing and roads to 'predict and avoid'. Predict and provide is simply unsustainable.

The Government's recent Aviation White Paper is especially unacceptable and unsustainable. Of course, Charles was right to point out that UK carbon emissions have fallen. But emissions inventories collated under the Kyoto protocol do not yet include aviation emissions and Charles didn't point out this basic weakness. If Government forecasts are fulfilled, aviation will require an additional 40 megatonnes of coal equivalent (MtC) or more of carbon savings on top of the 60MtC implied by a 60% reduction in emissions from non-aviation sources.

The minimum requirement is that aviation must be drawn into all national emissions inventories and into the EU Emissions Trading Regime. If any increase in emissions from aviation is contemplated, then it must be counteracted by a reduction in another area (see graph below, and www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environmental_audit_committee/eac_15_03_04.cfm).

Again, we cannot accept the Barker proposals for housebuilding, not as NIMBYS, not because to do so would be meeting or because of the loss of land or use of materials - although these are important - but because of the long-term increase in the use of energy, transport, water and other services. We are not, broadly, as a society, growing in numbers, only in our inability to live together. Forecast growth in household numbers is a product of us getting married later and divorced earlier, resulting in a huge increase in one person households.

Yes, we do need some more houses. But they don't need to be hugely demanding of resources if they are designed and built properly. We should be insisting that all new minimise resource use and climate change emissions, with zero carbon emission homes the norm. This is big idea number two.

Again, forecast movements south to London are almost entirely a failure of regional policy. The Government has come up with a glimmer of common sense with the recent announcements of moving civil servants north. But we need to lay out our key ideas for re-balancing regional development and moving the pressure from the South-East to where it is needed.

And following the spectacularly-named Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) report which acknowledged the truth that if you build more roads, you induce more traffic, there is no sane reason, other than fear of the roads lobby, to justify the Government's expansion of the roads programme.

Government is responsible for predict and provide. Government provides the planning framework, the tax framework, the investment to make it happen. We need to challenge predict and provide thinking in the same way that Thatcher challenged the concept of state ownership. This is a big but simple concept that voters will understand.

At the most strategic and simple level, tax is for supporting things Government wants to see. Good things to tax, in conventional economics, are things that are stable (inelastic), and things that are related to ability to pay. Tax has been used only rarely to change behaviour, as a way to support the objectives of other departments.

So big idea number three is for was a complete overhaul of the tax system. Charles did highlight the importance of taxing 'goods' less, and 'bads' more. But he gave only limited examples of this. And the important issue is more strategic: how far can we go in shifting taxation away from things we want and onto things we don't want? As a percentage of total taxes and social contributions, environmental taxes fell from 9.2 per cent of Government revenue in 1994 to 8.8 per cent in 2002. As a percentage of GDP, environmental taxes have remained broadly stable at between 3.2 per cent and 3.6 per cent (see www.statistics.gov.uk/CCI/nugget.asp?ID=152&Pos=&ColRank=2&Rank=448)

In one period of government in the 1840s, Sir Robert Peel shifted the burden of taxation dramatically from one based on value to one where income played a significant role in revenue collection. Our big idea should be for environmental taxes to raise at least as much revenue (if not more) as income and value. This may not be achieved in a single period of government, but it must be an objective. We must double, and double again, the revenue from environmental taxation, whilst at the same time keeping the overall burden of taxation at a similar proportion of GDP. Just think how many people we could take out of income tax, or how many basic products we could take out of value added tax, with reform on this scale. The benefits would not only be environmental, but dare I use this word, redistributional.

Big idea number four must be to change the indicators the government uses in order to determine its actions, whether on taxation, expenditure, planning, or consents. We do have a set of environmental accounts. But are they adequate? And why aren't they more widely referred to and published? (See www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_environment/environmental_accounts_2002.pdf)

Big idea number five is the key objective of achieving global contraction and convergence policies: not only must global resource use be reduced, but developing countries must be allowed room to increase resource use in the process of raising their standard of living; a greater burden for reduction must therefore fall on developed economies. In carbon emissions terms, therefore, the 60% reduction talked about by the IPCC is a global figure. The reduction in western economies needs to be even more profound, with all its implications for taxation, for expenditure, for planning, for changing behaviour, and, ultimately, for voters. Charles must not abandon previous commitments to this principle.

In summary, the criticism is one that has been made of us as a Party before, 'Good toolbox, no strategy'. It is time for the strategy.

But there is time. In questions afterwards, Charles said that his own views on environment had been profoundly affected by Sarah's strong views. We can only hope that continues. Understanding of and the championing of environment is, for all of us, a journey.

After the speech, I bumped into an environmental journalist from one of the more discriminating newspapers. He is someone for whom I have much respect. I asked him what he had made of the speech. He hesitated. And I hesitate to quote him in writing. But his words were telling. Eventually, he said that the speech was "A small step forwards… but from a long way back. Which is worrying from the leader of supposedly the Party with the greenest potentials."

The greenest potentials: that is the standard against which we, as a Party, and Charles, as leader, will be measured.

Let us hope this journey is one on which our leader has started, but like a hobbit stepping out of his front door, there is a long way to go, and the road goes ever on and on….

But at least Charles is on the road, which is more than can be said for the Labour and Tory leaders, who still have their feet - and heads - stuck firmly in the sand.

I will be writing to Charles to invite him to join with the Green Liberal Democrats. We exist to do what Charles said is needed. To push the environment up the political agenda and keep it there.

Related Links