Long on the Carrot, Short on the Stick

Blair’s green speech is all very well, but we can’t protect the environment without new laws

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 26th October 2000

Dear Mr Blair,

thank you for renewing your promise – made so long ago that we thought you had forgotten – to put the environment at the heart of government. As we found during the fuel blockades, when political leaders disregard an issue, so does everyone else. When you failed to refer to the environment, the greens found it hard to persuade the media that this should be central to a discussion of the crisis.

It was clever of your spin-doctors to have trailed your speech to the CBI on Tuesday as an attack on greens, allowing us to be pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be no such thing. But despite such tricks, there were some real and important measures in your speech. You announced your intention “to push green issues back up the political agenda”. You promised £100 million for renewable energy and “low-carbon technology”, £50 million to improve the local environment, and another £50 million for recycling schemes.

These are small but necessary measures. They contribute to some genuine environmental achievements. Though, as you acknowledge, they haven’t yet gone nearly far enough, your government has energised the global climate talks. You are investing in public transport and facilities for cyclists and pedestrians, though you’ve spoilt this somewhat by proposing to build 100 new bypasses and reneging on your promises to reduce traffic and to impose an out-of-town parking tax. You have decided to force the Countryside Bill through the House of Lords. You have kept Britain’s greenest ever minister, Michael Meacher, in the government. Who would have thought that he would still be there, while Jack Cunningham was roaring in the wilderness?

But something is missing, both from your speech on Tuesday and from your environmental policies in general. You explain in some detail the incentives you are offering for business to do better. Yet, though you twice acknowledge that regulation is also necessary if the environment is to be protected, at no point do you suggest what form this should take. New regulation, you say, should be negotiated internationally, which is why “we are working with the European Commission and other member states to improve the regulatory process in Europe.” I find this claim interesting. The Department of Trade and Industry’s white paper on science and innovation policy, published in July, contains a rather different message. “We must,” it states, “deregulate European markets as we draw them together”. I put it to you that this is government policy, while Tuesday’s statement was diversionary nonsense.

If this is so, then it is hard to see how you propose, as you claim, to “re-engage the political system on the importance of the environmental challenge”. Surely it doesn’t matter how many incentives to good practice there are, if they are not accompanied by disincentives to bad practice? New cycle paths will make no appreciable difference to our impact on the environment if the volume of cars and lorries on the roads continues to increase. Having promised us a green revolution, you have offered instead a depoliticised, technological vision, which avoids confrontation with power.

Your fear of being seen as anti-business could explain several puzzling failures. Britain’s waste policy remains a matter of deciding what to do with rubbish once it has been created, rather than forcing companies to reduce the amount they create in the first place. As a result, you may have to allow scores of new incinerators to be built, with devastating consequences for human health. You introduced a climate change levy to encourage business to consume less energy, but neutralised it when business leaders objected.

You continue to allow companies operating in the North Sea to take some of the oil they extract free of charge. You have allowed the Ministry of Agriculture to wage war on small farmers, while rewarding large ones. You have dropped or delayed the pesticide tax. You sought to sabotage the European Union’s bans on both beef from cattle injected with growth hormones and soft PVC toys for children under three, both of which threaten children’s health.

A sustainable world is one in which producers and consumers carry their own costs. Deregulation allows us to dump our costs onto the environment and onto people weaker than ourselves. It also hurts the very businesses you claim to support: companies investing in green technologies, whose market expands or shrinks according to the regulatory environment in which they operate. Deregulation affords dirty companies a competitive advantage over clean ones.

You claim that “we can be richer by being greener”. You’re right, but only if we are also assured that we will become poorer by being dirtier.