Analysis: Green issues come of age

With parliament in recess and MPs back in their constituencies it's been a slow start to the news week, but the last few days might well go down in Westminster history as the time environmental issues came home to roost.

Green groups have held weight for quite some time now, of course, and to a large minority of conscientious voters their pronouncements about the government's behaviour have been a cause to vote, or not vote, as the case may be.

But this week green issues showed they could hurt the government, and hurt it badly. The lorry drivers' protest in west London gathered more political attention than it might have done because there was so little other news to report on Tuesday, but it reflected a groundswell of concern across the country at the astonishing rise on oil prices to unprecedented levels.

After Tuesday, green taxes don't hold the same harmless, friendly ring the government always thought they had. Suddenly, analysts were appearing demonstrating how VAT-like green manoeuvres would hit the poor hardest, given they charge everyone the same amount no matter how much they earn.

The message couldn't have come at a more opportune time. Less commented on, but of equal importance, were the conclusions of an environmental audit committee report on personal carbon credits.

The committee proposed giving each individual an allocated amount of carbon expenditure per year, which they could use or earn money by not using. The genius of the system is that for those people without swimming pools, five-floor mansions and three sports cars, their carbon use might be sufficiently low for them to gain money through going greener.

The alternatives couldn't be starker. Green taxes penalise poor people in order to make them greener, while carbon credits open up a new avenue of income.

But Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, wasted no time in dismissing the committee's findings, complaining - legitimately - of the complexities involved in administering such a system.

The government might not remain so hostile to the idea once the twin forces of motorist frustration and environmental pressure groups pincer them into a corner. The icing on the cake, of course, will be the Tories joining the dots between fuel duty and the 10p tax rate to paint Labour as the 'new nasty party'.

Once those kinds of pressures build up, there's no telling the kind of things government will contemplate.


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