Shades of green in the election manifestos

The environment has dropped down the political agenda in recent months, and the Conservative and Labour election manifestos reflect an apparent conviction that it will not bulk large in the electorate's thinking. But the Liberal Democrats have given it high priority in their manifesto.

The Conservatives' election manifestos for the 1983 and 1987 elections offered no new ideas on environmental protection, and this year's continues the trend.

The Conservatives have highlighted three pledges in their manifesto. These are the establishment of an Environment Agency, a duty on the Agency to publish an annual state of the environment report, and support for the introduction of integrated pollution control based on the UK model within the EC. These initiatives, and one or two others on hedgerow and countryside protection, will be familiar to anyone who has not spent the past year underground or out of the country.

Labour's manifesto comments that "the greatest challenge we face is the responsibility to ensure the survival of the planet." It does so on the twenty-first of 28 pages, and proceeds to devote no more than 10 paragraphs to Labour's policies for addressing this challenge.

On the institutional front, Labour has promised to submit every government policy to an environmental appraisal, co-ordinated by a Cabinet Minister for Environmental Protection. The Conservatives would doubtless claim that they are doing this already, but Labour has gone one better by promising an annual Green Book assessing the environmental impact of economic policy to accompany the traditional financial Red Book produced by the Chancellor.

All of the commitments in the Labour manifesto have been elaborated at greater length in recent documents and speeches - notably an environmental policy document issued in October 1990 (ENDS Report 189, pp 3-4). These have provided detailed ideas for an Environment Protection Executive and a major extension of rights of public access to the courts on environmental matters (ENDS Report 186, p 3), and plans to use the revenues from a system of pollution levies to fund the development of cleaner processes (ENDS Report 197, p 3).

Other manifesto pledges, mostly made before, are:

  • A Labour Prime Minister would attend the global environment summit in Brazil in June with a commitment to stabilise the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide at 1990 levels by the end of the decade, and "a recognition that significant cuts will be needed in the early years of the new century."

  • A national strategy to promote waste minimisation, reuse and recycling. Trade in toxic waste would be banned.

  • Labour would promote a European Environment Charter, of unspecified content.

  • Transport policy would be "transformed" by ensuring "for the first time" that road, rail and other projects are "judged on the basis of their environmental, social and economic impact." Private capital would be mobilised within six months for large-scale public transport investments. Local authorities would be given greater powers to provide better quality public transport.

  • Vehicle taxation would be reformed to encourage smaller and cleaner cars and the use of catalytic converters. Company car subsidies would be phased out.

  • On energy, new agencies to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy would be set up. Gas and electricity companies would be obliged to invest in conservation measures. No new nuclear power stations would be built. Opencast coal mining would be reined back.

    The Liberal Democrats' manifesto is by far the most coherent offering of the three. It places environmental protection alongside social, economic and educational policy as the four grand challenges facing the country.

    On the institutional front, responsibility for environmental protection would be given to a new Department of Natural Resources. The Democrats would also set up an Environmental Protection Agency.

    According to the Democrats, the UK economy "currently functions unsustainably, producing unacceptable levels of pollution and resource depletion. We will create new incentives to follow environmentally sensitive strategies and behaviour."

    Incentives means penalties as well. The Democrats' key proposal in this area is a new energy tax. The revenues would be used to reduce other taxes and to protect those least able to adapt to higher energy prices. The tax would be applied "gradually" to petrol, while vehicle excise duty and car tax would also be graduated to promote fuel-efficient vehicles. The large caveat is that these price increases "will not be brought in unless and until compensation schemes for individuals and rural communities which have no alternative to the use of cars are ready to be introduced."

    The Democrats would also penalise other activities "which harm the environment or deplete stocks of raw materials through taxation, so that prices reflect the damage they do." On the other hand, grants and subsidies would be provided for "environmentally friendly activities, such as home insulation, and to help individuals and industry adjust to our new stricter standards for pollution control."

    Other economic instruments promised in the manifesto are a system of tradable emission licences to promote more cost-effective reductions in emissions of pollutants "such as" sulphur dioxide, and deposit-refund schemes for unspecified goods.

    The Democrats' most ambitious pledge is to cut the UK's emissions of CO2 by 30% by 2005. They hope to achieve this by means of their new energy tax, energy efficiency standards for buildings and products, promotion of combined heat and power, and a doubling of government spending on renewable energy research. They would have to achieve the target while phasing out nuclear power by 2020 at the latest, and stopping the construction of the Sizewell B nuclear station.

    The Democrats' transport and planning policies would also contribute to the emission reduction programme. A level playing in decision-making between rail and road, and enhanced investment in public transport, are key elements in their transport policy. And their planning policies would encourage the building of homes near workplaces, shops and other services.

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