Green dawn of a Swampy age

May 2, 1997

One thing we can say with confidence about yesterday's election is that the electorate will have put in power a government whose policies on the environment are inadequate.

British academic experts are world leaders in research on such subjects as green economics, renewable energy, climate change and sustainable development. But, instead of making the most of their knowledge, Labour and Tory politicians have held a Dutch auction to lower expectations, for example by agreeing to keep VAT high on energy-saving goods while having a specially low rate for fuel - which Labour is committed to lowering yet further. Only the Liberal Democrat manifesto set out bold ideas for the future of environmental protection, and stated plainly that it would cost money.

However, green taxes are bound to reappear on the agenda of a government which wants to spend money without raising income tax rates, and even has ambitions to lower them. It also has international obligations to look to, notably this autumn's Kyoto conference at which the next century's agreements on greenhouse gas emissions must be agreed. The obvious way of doing something about the greenhouse gas problem is to launch a two-headed campaign in which fossil fuel use is taxed and the proceeds are used to increase energy efficiency. But for a cash-strapped government even green taxes whose proceeds go into general government spending are likely to appeal.

Happily for the government, one thing on which economists agree is that there is no point in a small green tax if you want to alter people's behaviour. A modest tax just annoys people - only a stiff one will make them switch fuels or take the train instead of driving.

And it can be expected that the car-driving democracy, so favoured by Mrs Thatcher, will be in the firing line along with companies. The extraordinary popularity of today's national pets, Swampy, Animal and friends, suggests that transport might now safely be targetted along with polluting industry as offering scope for money-raising, green taxation. Road pricing, so long discussed, looks like an idea whose time has come.

Fees for travelling on motorways would be one possibility. Making it expensive to drive into the centre of London and other cities might be a better option. The Oxford University geneticists being forced onto bicycles by a Labour council refusing to allow a massive car park at their new laboratory may be just the harbinger of things to come. Perhaps MPs too might be invited to get on their bikes?

The task of getting green policies right in this country has been altered in recent years by the privatisation of major resource users and producers, including water, gas, electricity and rail. The utility industries' regulators have slight or no environmental duties, and their responsibility to the consumer often means they insist on lower prices when higher ones would make more environmental sense.

As David Pearce points out (page 26), the idea that the environment can be valued economically has now established itself as common wisdom. And the idea that the polluter pays is also a matter of all-party agreement. But, so far, we have regarded "the polluter" as being the chemical company or the nuclear fuel works. There was, after all, little electoral appeal in pointing out that people, and particularly people in cars, are polluters too. Now those who spend their low-taxed salaries on large cars which they drive to work in city centres had better prepare to be billed.

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