Dead Men Left

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

New Labour dodging environmental commitments

This has been brewing for some time:

The government and the European commission clashed head on yesterday over Britain's plans to allow industry to emit higher than approved levels of greenhouse gases in a row which threatened to undermine Tony Blair's claim for leadership in combating global warming…

Yesterday, two days before the Kyoto protocol, the main instrument for fighting global warming, comes into force, EU officials made plain that Brussels continued to reject the UK's revised plan to allocate about 20m tonnes more carbon dioxide to industry and would begin infringement proceedings against it if it went ahead.

There is a familiar, and long-standing pattern to New Labour’s environmental record: grand pre-election promises, euphoric post-election verbal radicalism, more and more muted comments from the minister concerned, dwindling to nothing – and then, finally, the U-turn, delivered with more or less finesse. New Labour has stuck to the rhythm set by all previous Labour governments, the only difference being the paucity of its initial vision.

Under the sway of a dynamic and widely popular protest movement against road-building, New Labour was elected in 1997 with a commitment to halting the construction of new roads, Blair himself claiming they were “not an option”. New Labour’s first White Paper on transport policy, published in summer 1998, was hailed by environmental groups for the emphasis it placed on alternatives to road use. The sorry story of New Labour’s subsequent betrayal is told here.

The amalgam of “middle England” and radical environmentalists, cemented around transport policy, had formed a small but critical part in the anti-Tory coalition that led to New Labour’s initial victory. The bad faith later shown by the government has helped break up that alliance, leaving no alternative support in its place as New Labour adapted itself with horrid rapidity to a species of neo-liberal managerialism in transport policy: crisis management, under conditions amenable to business, has been the guiding principle.

The consequences are serious. The government’s failure to control and reduce road use has significantly contributed to its failure to meet (already lenient) targets for greenhouse gas emissions.

Now it is attempting to duck its international commitments on protecting the environment. The pressure from business is clear:

Britain's manufacturers praised the government stance. Sir Digby Jones, CBI director, said: "UK businesses need the government to fight as hard as it can to make sure companies here are not handicapped with onerous targets when other states are not making the same commitment."

…leaving the government half-heartedly attempting to squeeze decidedly unwilling electricity suppliers into producing fewer emissions. Needless to say, this difficulty would not occur were electricity generation nationalised; it would not even be so much of a problem if the government had ever developed a serious, long-term national plan for emissions reduction. It has, instead, stuffed up royally; and, being New Labour, when it stuffs up, it follows the path of least corporate resistance.

The Kyoto Protocol is due to come into force tomorrow. Pitiful as it is, it does impose certain restrictions on signatory government’s actions. However, its regulations allow governments to opt-out of the agreement after three years. New Labour has threatened in the past to duck its international obligations and opt out of even longstanding treaties; it would not be surprising if Blair did so again.