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What price our planet?

March 1, 2004 12:00 AM
By Rt Hon Charles Kennedy MP in Royal United Services Institute, Whitehall

Charles Kennedy MP for Ross, Skye & Inverness West, Leader of the Liberal Democrats speaking at Party ConferenceCharles Kennedy outlines his vision for a dynamic and greener economy, with policies including replacing passenger airport departure taxes with a duty on flights to promote more efficient aeroplane use

Speech sponsored by the Green Alliance, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

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INTRODUCTION

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.

Why? Because we are facing an environmental disaster and we need to act now.

Just reflect on the sober words of the experts.

Sir David King, the Government's Chief Scientist, last month wrote that climate change is "the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even then the threat of terrorism."

The next day, a report issued by a group of top international scientists warned that up to 37% of species could become extinct by 2050.

Over a third of all species within our lifetimes.

And then last week, the Observer got hold of a leaked Pentagon paper warning President Bush that climate change is not only plausible but would "challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately."

The paper apparently warned that conflict to secure dwindling water, food and energy supplies would usher in a world where "warfare would define human life".

This is clearly a nightmare scenario.

Yet when the Prime Minister was asked about his own Chief Scientist's warning about climate change he said: "Looking very long term, if I look at when my children are my age, yes, I think it is the key issue that faces us."

Very long term? This Prime Minister needs to start injecting some urgency into his Government.

There will be a high price to pay if we do not act quickly and radically, and that is why today I want to set out the Liberal Democrat vision for a sustainable future.

And I want to set a challenge to all of us here, politicians, activists, pressure groups and members of the media alike.

A challenge to a Government which is failing to treat the environment with the seriousness it deserves;

A challenge to the media to treat the environment with the same seriousness that it does terrorism;

A challenge to each and every one of us to take the difficult decisions necessary in our own lives to make a difference.

Everyone knows that environmental groups, including the RSPB and WWF here today, have more members than all three main political parties put together.

The Government's own polling shows that over 90% of people are concerned about green issues - about climate change and pollution, about the extinction of wildlife, and deforestation.

Millions of people care passionately about green issues.

But caring and acting is not the same thing and we simply don't have time to wait.

LABOUR'S FAILURES

In 1997, (when things could only get better), Labour declared in their manifesto:

"We will put concern for the environment at the heart of policy-making, so that it is not an add-on extra, but informs the whole of government."

So much for the rhetoric. But let's just look at what has happened since Labour came to power:

It is true that Greenhouse emissions have fallen by about 7% in Britain since 1997, reflecting the move from coal to gas for the generation of electricity, a one- off gain.

But why is it that the World Economic Forum ranks Britain 91st in the world when it comes to environmental sustainability, behind countries like Bangladesh.

Take a look at the other indicators and this comes as no surprise:

Total municipal waste is up by 17%, whilst Britain languishes at the bottom of the European league with just 9% of household waste recycled.

High level radioactive waste is up 6%

Domestic energy consumption is up by nearly 7%

This Government continues with multi-million pound bail-outs for the ailing nuclear energy industry, but whereas Italy manages to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources, Britain manages a paltry 2.5%.

Pathetic. Truly pathetic.

And what about transport?

Our public transport is in chaos - with delays on our railways doubling.

Road traffic is up by 8%.

Worse still the Transport Minister has forecast traffic growth of up to 25% in England by 2010.

This is not sustainable development. It is old fashioned, uncontrolled, unsustainable development.

And over sensitive issues, such as genetically modified crops, they seem determined to ignore sound science.

On issues like GM, and the licensing of new chemicals, we should proceed on the basis of the precautionary principle.

There is absolutely no need for undue haste on GM crops and there is not the consumer demand to justify an acceleration of the decision-making process.

Labour isn't acting on the environment, and it isn't even listening.

Whether it's on the international stage, in our national economy, or in your local area and at home, the Government is failing.

Failing internationally - to recognise there needs to be a fairer consumption of resources between nations.

Failing nationally - to acknowledge that environmental damage is a drain on our economy of at least £65bn a year - and rising by £1bn more every year.

And failing locally - to recognise that the environment affects us all, particularly in relation to wellbeing and health.

Environmental degradation is often greater in those areas where the poorest live.

Healthier local environments would start to address inequalities.

But this is a vision that looks increasingly lost on Labour.

It is absolutely astonishing that there has not been a single statement from the Environment Minister Margaret Beckett in the House of Commons on an issue of substance for the environment in near-on 2 years.

Nor has there been a Government sponsored debate.

Labour promised to put the green agenda at the heart of government, instead it is firmly out on a limb.

What price our planet under Labour?

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT ACTION

It has been left to the Liberal Democrats to initiate the only two environment debates in the last two years as part of our opposition days in Parliament.

I would like to pay tribute to Norman Baker, our Shadow Environment Secretary, and his team, for their ceaseless energy, dedication and commitment to the green agenda.

I would especially like to pay tribute to George Lyon, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Argyll and Bute, who won the title of Best Politician in the 2003 Green Energy Awards in Scotland.

George has been a champion for renewable energy in his constituency, leading the drive in remote rural areas to set up community wind farm projects.

Such projects could not only lead to energy self-sufficient communities, but could also generate much needed funds for local people if surpluses can be sold back to the national grid.

We are rightly proud of the work that George has done, and the work of our other representatives in Westminster, Scotland, Wales, Europe and local councils up and down the land in pushing forward the green agenda.

Their dedication reflects the commitment that the Liberal Democrats have shown over many years to putting the environment truly at the heart of Government.

ENVIRONMENT AT THE HEART OF GOVERNMENT

Our manifesto for the 2001 general election contained green action points in each chapter covering initiatives we would have introduced for each department of Government.

And we intend to do the same at the next General Election.

Because responsibility for the environment should not rest exclusively in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but across all departments.

The environment should inform all Government decision making.

It was a grave mistake for this Government to row back after 2001 and delink Environment and Transport.

The creation of DEFRA has served only to marginalise environmental decision making.

The decisions that have the greatest green effects are now taken in the Trade and Industry and Transport departments, and of course in the Treasury.

The Liberal Democrats have set out proposals for a new structure of Government.

One that strips away unnecessary functions in some areas, in order to focus Government on delivery for public services, delivery for tax payers money, and delivery for the Environment.

We would create a new Department of the Environment, Energy and Transport, taking DEFRA's environmental responsibilities and the DTI's water and energy roles and integrating them with Transport.

This would create what you could call a department for sustainable development and truly put environment at the heart of government.

The current structures are, quite simply, unsuitable.

THE WORLD STAGE

I said at the outset that delivering the green agenda requires taking tough choices.

Reducing harmful emissions from our cars and our industries is not pain-free.

Protecting habitats, wildlife and the forests which are the oxygen engine of our planet, are particularly painful for developing countries that are rich only in natural resources.

The truly rich countries of the world, those who consume the most and pollute the most, should preach less and act more.

That is why I want Britain to lead by example and put in place concrete measures to reach the target of a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010, and a 60% reduction by 2050.

Setting an example here at home, must be accompanied by redoubled efforts internationally.

The reluctance of the United States administration to engage with the international community on the Kyoto treaty is shameful. When it comes to tough choices on the environment, the US administration is ducking every one.

When a Government representing a country with 7% of the world's population, but accounting for 36% of all greenhouse gas emissions, refuses to take seriously even the proposition of climate change, then it is gambling with all our futures.

It is time that the European Union stepped into the vacuum that the US is leaving and leads the push to raise environmental standards world-wide.

The EU should use its economic weight to have environmental factors included in the investment and lending policies of the IMF, the World Bank and regional development banks.

And the EU should be at the forefront of global climate negotiations to persuade other countries to ratify the Kyoto agreement and to extend it.

Action at the European level is critical for Britain's environment because pollution is no respecter of national borders.

EU-wide coordinated action is vital if we are to make a real impact on the environment.

The EU institutions already set the framework for most British environmental legislation and I welcome this.

More action at the European level is required.

For instance, the environmental damage caused by aviation is massive.

But airlines - unlike motorists - pay nothing like the true economic and environmental costs of flying.

That is why I support, in principle, the introduction of taxation on aviation fuel working at the European level, to ensure that air transport carries the full burden of its costs.

THE ECONOMY

A key aspect of the Liberal Democrat green vision is to develop coherent economic incentives that actually go with the grain of markets, in order to influence the direction of spending and investment.

Taxation is of course used to secure funding for investment in essential public services. But there is also a role for taxation in changing behaviour, and using it to encourage good environmental practice.

When one uses the phrase 'green taxation', people often assume that means draining more money from hard-up people to top up Treasury coffers.

And too often in the past that has been the reality.

This is not about taxing more, but taxing differently, and intelligently.

For instance, there remain many perverse aspects to the tax system from an environmental point of view.

VAT is payable on housing repairs and renovations, but not on building new houses on green field sites.

It's no wonder there is public cynicism about green taxation.

But there is a better way.

The time has come for a fundamental shift in how we use economic instruments.

In order to put the environment at the heart of government, we need to put the environment at the heart of the Treasury.

Why can't we develop a coherent environmental incentive mechanism that brings together the different economic instruments used to promote environmental responsibility?

This would need to be based on an open, consistent measure of environmental consequences.

And it would need to apply the principle that extra revenues should not just disappear into the Treasury, but should be recycled into offsetting tax cuts.

That way, people could see the environmental logic of the policy and be assured it's not just an excuse for stealth taxes.

What would this mean in practice?

Well, when the Conservatives introduced airport departure tax for every person who takes a flight, they did it to plug a hole in their spending plans.

There was no real thought about how to encourage environmentally friendly aviation.

Freight planes pay no dues, but pollute just as much.

A full passenger aircraft causes virtually no more pollution than an empty one, but the present duty gives no incentive to the operators to fill up their flights.

So the Liberal Democrats would scrap all airport departure taxes paid by passengers.

A much fairer system would be for airlines to pay duty on every plane taking off from a British airport, both passenger and freight.

Our proposal, taxing the aeroplane not the passenger, is the principle of the polluter pays in action.

This is an example of how an environmental incentive mechanism can work. The same logic can be applied to other areas, such as the waste stream.

At the moment, it is cheaper to landfill than to recycle, let alone minimise waste generation.

It is often argued that tackling environmental problems can hurt business and the economy. The opposite is true.

Reducing the £65 billion a year burden that environmental degradation costs to economy will bring significant gains both to tax-payers and to businesses in the long run.

My vision is of 'green growth' for Britain. A green economy is a dynamic economy.

I want British business to lead the world in environmental technologies and to be at the forefront of environmental business processes.

I want Britain to lead the world in improving the efficiency of cars, developing alternative fuels and making zero emission vehicles a reality not a pipe dream.

In the long run this will enhance the competitiveness of British industry, not diminish it.

THE ENVIRONMENT BEGINS AT HOME

Sensible green solutions save money, for the individual and for the nation.

Better insulation in our homes, for example, can mean cheaper heating bills and less use of fossil fuels.

The Liberal Democrats are determined to spread the message that a healthier environment means a healthier quality of life.

Dealing with pollution at all levels is the priority:

reducing exhaust fumes and harmful air particles from traffic;

reducing rubbish in the streets;

and reducing harmful chemicals in our local environment.

This would be good not just for our health.

House prices are higher in clean, cared-for areas.

They attract less crime and vandalism, and are more attractive to businesses and shops.

Again green growth. It is win-win.

So how do we do this, how do we achieve green growth in our communities?

Incentives are of course the key. For example:

We should reward motorists who drive less polluting vehicles with less tax and charge more for the most polluting vehicles.

We should reduce VAT from 17.5% to 5% on all energy saving products for the home.

People would get a double bonus.

It would be cheaper to buy and install energy saving products, AND they would save money in cheaper electricity and gas bills.

And we should find mechanisms to encourage manufacturers to analyse the life cycles of their products, and to redesign them so that they are easier to reuse or recycle.

The goal should be a minimal waste society.

We should look at the potential that 'green' reward cards can play like the successful scheme the Dutch are running in Rotterdam

The scheme works like a store loyalty card but gives 'points' for buying sustainable products, for recycling and even using public transport.

I think people will take to schemes like this.

I think they will change their behaviour if given the incentive to do so.

CONCLUSION

We know people are concerned about the kind of world our children will inherit, and they are worried about the legacy we are creating for them.

It is not that people don't care about the environment, but people often see the environment as a huge issue affecting the planet, almost too huge, not something they themselves can directly affect.

We need to bring the environmental debate into local communities, and right into people's daily lives.

Not by ignoring the big issues like climate change, but by bringing home to people just how affected they are by the environment on their doorstep.

Being green is about the decisions we take on the things we buy and even how we carry them home.

It is about local planning decisions, taken by local people, in local town halls.

It is about the place we work in - the creation of emissions by the companies we work for, and the products we produce.

And ultimately, it is about our Government being willing to take tough decisions at home and convince other governments across the globe to take those tough decisions too.

Challenging behaviour in the home, challenging behaviour of our businesses, and challenging the behaviour of governments on the international stage.

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