Blair's environmental legacy

Tony Blair’s final weeks as Prime Minister witnessed a deluge of long-awaited environmental initiatives: publication of the waste strategy and the energy and planning White Papers (see pp 34-38 , pp 40-42  and pp 46-47  respectively); and the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, at which President Bush belatedly shifted ground on climate change (see pp 4-5 ).

Most of these were coincidental with his departure - things just turned out that way. All are not the end of a story but the beginning, or a continuation, with much fresh work to do. The green credentials of the energy White Paper are questionable. As for the one on planning, it aims to shift the balance in land use decisions towards business interests and away from environmentalist opponents of development.

Maybe that would have been different if responsibilities for planning and environmental protection were still within the same department of state. The sudden creation of DEFRA back in 2001 - a classic piece of ‘sofa government’ done largely to facilitate a cabinet reshuffle - was arguably his biggest green mistake.

For as well as sundering overall control of development, transport and environmental protection, it left the latter in the hands of a crisis-ridden ministry which had performed its main job - promoting agriculture - rather poorly.

Mr Blair has been persuaded that climate change is a hugely important issue. Towards the back end of his ten-year premiership, he put great effort into lifting it up the global agenda. Something similar happened with Margaret Thatcher nearly 20 years ago.

But the killer fact is that UK carbon dioxide emissions in 2006 stood at 561 million tonnes, compared to 548 million tonnes in 1997. "We have made it our guiding rule not to promise what we cannot deliver, and to deliver what we promise," said Labour’s 1997 Manifesto. And, further on: "We will lead the fight against global warming, through our target of a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2010."

In truth, Mr Blair has made little progress in cracking the biggest problem of them all - how to make a consumer society with a briskly growing economy and a slowly growing population environmentally sustainable. The 1997 manifesto promised to "put concern for the environment at the heart of policy-making, so that it is not an add-on extra". We’re not there yet.

Let us put aside preconceptions about Gordon Brown, and his abandonment of the fuel tax escalator in 1999, and hope he does better. I look forward to editing The ENDS Report, a journal I have long admired, and would welcome your views on improving our publication.

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