Green is so much last year’s colour for western governments. Now they have stumbled into a policy which will cut carbon emissions sharply, their policy of falling living standards and recession, they are all rightly trying to run away from it. So are their voters, who might tell pollsters they want to live in a lower carbon world, but not if it means they have no car and have lost their job.
Let me make it clear. I see myself as a sensible green. I want to stop overbuilding, leaving some green gaps and lovely countryside between English settlements. I want to clean up the water and air through better technology and some regulation. I think the biggest domestic policy error of the Bush regime was the failure to work away at energy self sufficiency, to cut dependence on unreliable supplies from elsewhere, and see the UK government’s failure to find new, more fuel efficient home grown energy solutions as one of its more important mistakes.
What I dislike are the authoritarian greens, who see the cause of lower carbon as a means to try to stop personal transport, who wrongly think trains and buses do not cause some of the problem, and who refuse to look at the audit of where the carbon comes from. They do not accept that for some journeys the car is the lower carbon alternative to the nearly empty bus or the inconvenient train. They never tackle the carbon excesses of the public sector – all that air conditioning and over heating in bureaucratic offices, and all that travel on “fact finding” and “diplomatic” junkets, whilst condemning the commuter who dares to try to get to work through their congestion loaded streets by car. It seems to be freedom they want to stifle, rather than carbon.
The German government has faced a dilemma. Representing a car ridden economy, where the automotive industry is a very important part of their activity, the government has lobbied and argued for less onerous carbon regulation at the EU level. They have decided automotive jobs matter more than the latest fashion in carbon targets.
The US government faces a dilemma. President Obama is not yet in office, elected on a green ticket, before he is letting it be known that saving the gas guzzling car makers of Motown is important to him. Yes, he will dress up help with programmes to encourage them to make more fuel efficient cars, but in the meantime he accepts the reality that too many jobs are riding on making grossly inefficient vehicles to be a rigorous green. He is not about to say “thank goodness these makers of fuel wasting cars are about to go bust or slim down. That will help me to hit the new targets I want to impose”. Once again in the USA we see those two bank nationalising, war fighting, high spending and high borrowing advocates of big government, George Bush and Barak Obama, united in their approach.
In the UK we have come to expect contradictory responses, and differing language depending on the day of the week and the nature of the audience. One day we are told in the House that tougher carbon targets are the order of the day. The next we are told that propping up the auto industry and trying to get the banks to lend more money to the companies that make the cars and the individuals who might buy them is crucial to our future success. Meanwhile, in Labour inclining Manchester they vote by 4 to 1 against Labour’s mistaken green policy of trying to switch people from carbon emitting cars to carbon emitting public transport at a £1.6 billion cost of borrowed taxpayer money, and £5 a day for those who still want to use a car.
The Manchester defeat should be seen as the end of an era. Labour’s whole transport strategy was based on the premise that if they spent more on trams and trains, and taxed people more for using cars, they would achieve a “modal shift” . Only the rich would be able to drive their own personal transport, alongside the Ministers in their chauffeured limos. The rest of us would willingly take the shiny new trams or crowd onto the already full peak hour trains, saving the money on the Congestion charge to pay the extra taxes for the losses the public transport systems usually make.
This policy has recently suffered a defeat in London. Some Londoners voted Boris in to get rid of the anti car policies, and to scrap part of the Congestion zone. The consultation the new Mayor carried out was clear. The voters wanted the western zone scrapped, and he has said he will do so. Now it is defeated in Manchester.
The people are right. This very expensive switch will not make a huge difference to carbon output, but it will cost large sums of money and may make the journeys of many even more inconvenient. We need instead a positive policy of sensible investment in the railways to get more capacity out of them, and road improvements to cut congestion and improve the safety and flows at junctions. Motorists have had enough of taking all the blame for carbon output, when there are so many other sources of it from the inefficient domestic boiler to the old fashioned power station. The government needs to work away at improving the capacity and technical performance of much of the infrastructure, without inventing new taxes for people already groaning under the burden of wasteful government. 11 years have failed to deliver the modal shift, and the modal shift was not going to solve the carbon problem anyway.