To the Commons Liaison Committee, where yesterday prime minister Tony Blair was striving manfully to defend his government's record on tackling climate change in the face of questions from a cross party group of senior MPs. Judging by the transcript of the meeting he was not doing too good a job.
It all started so well with Blair highlighting how the UK was a "leader" in the climate change debate and one of the few major economies that remained on track to meet its carbon emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol.
And then the questions started and the vague and contradictory nature of the Blair government's strategy for tackling climate change was thrown into sharp focus.
It was Sir George Young, the Conservative chair of the standards and privileges committee, who first highlighted the distance between the government's rhetoric and action, recalling how when Blair spoke to the committee a year previous he said that if there was going to be an impact on the level of air travel there has got to be "a pretty hefty whack" on the consumer. So, in that light, "Was restoring the airport duty back to £10 for European travel in the Pre-Budget Report a "hefty whack" or was it a light tap on the wrist?" he asked.
Blair responded that it "was a step", before claiming he did not think he had advocated a "hefty whack" on the consumer, insisting the real focus had to be on getting airlines into the EU emissions trading scheme, and reiterating his view that "it is just not serious or practical to say to people "Don't travel by air"."
Does that mean, Sir George asked, that the chancellor was wrong in his claim "that the Government recognised the role that air passenger duty can play in tackling the climate change impact of aviation?"
Well of course the chancellor was "absolutely right", said Blair, before embarking on further prevarication about how a hefty hike in air passenger duty would lead to a "backlash" from many of the lowest income families for whom cheap air travel has been a "great bonus".
Not to be defeated Environmental Audit Committee chairman and Tory MP Tim Yeo attempted to clarify this circuitous attempt at logic. "Would you agree," he asked, "that a green tax is one whose purpose is to change behaviour rather than to raise revenue?"
"Yes" responded Blair. "My general experience of taxes is that they are designed to raise revenue whatever other purposes people say. Of course, it is important that in order to qualify properly as a green tax they have some sort of impact on behaviour that is designed to reduce the impact on the environment."
So is the air passenger duty "having an effect on people's behaviour or… just building up the Treasury coffers?" inquired Yeo.
"No… I think the air passenger duty will have some impact", said Blair, before insisting that climate change measures "have also got to be sensible, particularly in areas where you are going to impact heavily on what people regard as also their right, which is to drive if they have to drive and to be able to take flights to visit different countries or even within our own country."
So there we have it: it is not "practicable" to try and get people to give up cheap air travel, but the air passenger duty is meant to have "some impact" towards doing exactly this. The government is not simply trying to raise more revenue, according to Blair, it is trying to change behaviour - though given the modest nature of the increases in air levies it must only be trying to change the behaviour of those too poor to afford the extra £5 on the cost of a short haul flight.
The conflicted logic provides an embodiment of the chronically weak leadership the government has taken on climate change. It accepts something needs to be done, and then says in the same breath that it is impractical to ask anyone to do anything. It will introduce green taxes, but refuses to admit that they are actually intended to change behaviour, fearful it may have to deal with more fuel protests.
Blair has to decide once and for all if encouraging people to reduce the number of flights they take in order to help with the fight against climate change is desirable or not.
If it is then he needs to stop talking about giving up flying being impractical and start saying that while it remains a matter of personal choice it is ultimately desirable for people to limit air travel where possible (just as he accepts smoking is a personal choice that many people would find difficult to give up, while making it plain that it is not in the long term national interest iof they do smoke).
If it is not then he should admit the increase in air passenger duty is just a revenue generating scam and also ask himself if it is even worth having a chief scientist if you never listen to what they say about the link between aircraft emissions and climate change.
It would be bad enough if this was an isolated problem, but it is simply emblematic of the muddled thinking that dominates the government's entire climate change strategy.
This disconnect between rhetoric and action was again highlighted when Blair's reverie on how science will save the problem was interrupted by one MP asking about a carbon capture project that BP is hoping to get government support for. Blair then admitted that there were eight or nine such projects seeking funding before reminding the committee that there was a finite pot of cash for financial support of new cleaner technologies.
At one point one Tory MP urged more drastic action, pointing out that the government can tell everyone they have to throw out their analogue TVs and switch to digital, but refuses to tell everyone they have to switch to energy efficient lightbulbs. Blair ignored the analogy completely and openly mocked the idea of telling people what lightbulbs to have in their home.
Furthermore, Blair responded to almost every question on the UK's strategy by arguing that with the UK accounting for just 2 percent of global carbon emissions our efforts alone are worthless without international action.
This is of course factually correct, but every time Blair mentions it – and he mentions it every time he talks on climate change – he contributes to an utterly defeatist attitude that accepts that we as both individuals and a nation state can do next to nothing to combat climate change. What's more he openly admitted that this international agreement that he holds up as the only hope of halting global warming is possible, but "not yet probable".
At one point during the hearing it was noted that Blair was "nowhere" on successful environmental initiatives such as the congestion charge and he was asked where was the leadership on climate change?
The worrying thing for any business leader looking at the prime ministers' performance and wondering what to do about the transition towards green business models is that it is nowhere to be seen.
Where are the clear, accessible and sufficiently financed tax breaks and subsidies to help with the transition towards clean technologies? Where are the clear messages to firms and their employees that certain types of behaviour are undesirable and unsustainable? The same techniques are used to prop up or discourage other activities that are deemed strategic or damaging to the national interest, why can’t they be used to help tackle what the government says is the most pressing challenge it faces?
Thankfully fewer and fewer business people are looking for this guidance and are instead carving out leadership positions for themselves – leaving our government behind.
But imagine how much easier the transition to green business models would be with more coherent political leadership. Surely energy efficiency campaigns at work would prove more successful if the government invested as much in condemning energy wastefulness as it did in stopping smoking? Surely developments of green technologies would be achieved far quicker if the government backed up the rhetoric that claims climate change is a huge threat to national security and started writing some of the blank cheques it grants the military?
I know I keep banging on about this but if there is one thing business hates more than onerous regulation it is uncertainty around regulation and until the gaping chasm between the rhetoric and action on climate change is closed that is what we have.
No one would envy Blair's task of balancing the need for action with the need to keep the public onside. But at the same time it could be argued that he is blessed to be in power at a time when attitudes on environmental sustainability are finally shifting and there is public appetite for change. If Blair, or more pertinently his successor, actually took a clear leadership position on climate change rather than constantly talking about it they might just find individuals and businesses are willing to follow.
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