A brief critique of New Labour's environmental record


2 September 2002


By Dr Spencer Fitz-Gibbon, External Communications Coordinator, Green Party Executive

Lucy Williams, Press Officer, Green Party of England & Wales

Ben Duncan, Press Officer to the UK Green MEPs

Gemma Stunden, Assistant to Jean Lambert MEP (Green Party, London)

With thanks to:

Alan Francis, Green Party Transport Speaker

Lord Beaumont of Whitley, Green Party Spokesperson on Agriculture Fisheries & Food

Dr Caroline Lucas MEP (Green Party, SE England)

Dr Chris Busby, Green Party Spokesperson on Science & Technology

Darren Johnson GLA, leader of the Greens on the London Assembly

Professor John Whitelegg, Green Party Chief Policy Advisor on Transport

Cllr Jon Barry, former leader of the Greens on Lancaster City Council

Cllr Keith Taylor (Green Party, Brighton)

Martyn Shewsbury, Health Spokesperson, Wales Green Party/Plaid Werdd Cymru

Dr Molly Scott Cato, Green Party Economics Spokesperson

Penny Kemp, Environment Spokesperson and Chair, Green Party Executive

Xanthe Bevis, Green Party Housing Spokesperson

and others who didn't wish to be named!





The government recently announced that UK CO2 emissions are back at 1990 levels. But this isn't so much about Tony Blair's policies, it's about Margaret Thatcher closing down the coal industry.

Penny Kemp, Chair, Green Party of England & Wales


Greens (and an increasing number of others - including the insurance industry, which is terrified of the effects of climate change) want a "contraction and convergence" approach to climate change, which involves achieving demanding targets worldwide in an equitable manner. 100 MPs have signed Early Day Motion 325, but the government has failed to adopt it.

The government took a brave step with its Climate Change Levy, which might reduce CO2 emissions by 2.5-5m tonnes a year by 2010. But it has wiped out this advantage many times over by other policies, like airport expansions and its "exporting pollution" scandal. Basically, Labour has used export credit guarantees to underwrite the building of polluting fossil-fuel power stations in developing countries. Greenpeace revealed recently that 13.3 million tonnes of carbon have been emitted since 1997 as a direct result of this policy of exporting pollution.

New Labour's flagship environmental policy has been its promotion of the Kyoto Protocol. Yet Kyoto is patently inadequate to the task of reducing CO2 emissions globally by 60% by 2050. In essence, Kyoto provides a good framework with absurdly low targets. Blair has never argued for the right targets - only for targets which have allowed him to claim that his targets are better than those of some other countries, and better than those of the Tories.

And Prescott has revealed an incredible degree of naivete in claiming, in The Guardian 14.8.02, 'that industrial polluters who "were actively campaigning against [reform] at Kyoto have vanished as the public has become aware of the threat from climate change".' In fact, at the time of writing some of those industrial polluters are lobbying the US government not to attend the Johannesburg Earth Summit - or to undermine it if it does.




Labour has made short faltering steps on the road to renewables, before tripping itself up over more nuclear power.

Dave Toke, Green Party Energy Spokesperson

Despite all its rhetoric, New Labour hasn't done much that previous Tory governments didn't do.

This year (2002) will have seen two energy reviews - neither of which bothered to concern itself with energy use. So the chance for a radical re-think, in order to reduce energy demand, just wouldn't come up.



Labour has responded to supply interest groups' demands, especially the nuclear industry's. One of this year's reviews has been to organise the funnelling of more state subsidies into the bankrupt nuclear industry through the Liabilities Management Agency. The forthcoming energy review, due to produce a white paper later this year, is concerned with little else than advancing an argument for more nuclear power stations. All serious energy analysts regard more nuclear power stations as laughable because of the extremely high costs of building them and of handling resulting waste.

Based on the cost of rebuilding Sizewell B, it would cost some £40bn to replace all Britain's nuclear power stations, not including interest charges which would accrue if it were privately funded. A recent study by AEA Technology found that the same amount of energy (25% of UK electricity) from offshore wind would cost just £19bn, including interest charges.



In the July 2002 Comprehensive Spending Review, the DTI had bid for some £350 million for non-nuclear renewables in 2005-6. Leading renewables companies were led to expect significant increases in support for renewables projects But by the time the CSR was announced, the government had whittled the £350 million down to just £38 million.



Britain is way behind the leaders on solar energy.

By the end of 2001, the German solar photovoltaics (PV) programme had delivered 35,000 solar roofs. In just one month (April 2001) more applications were approved under the German programme (4,198) than the predicted total for the entire three year UK Major Demonstration Programme (approximately 3,500 systems). Note that Germany has a Green Party environment minister.

All the money given by New Labour towards solar roofs has gone into PV. Effectively, the money has all been given to oil giant BP. However, no investment has been made into solar thermal energy, which is more efficient in cost-benefit terms than PV. Investing in solar thermal would be a relatively cheap way to rapidly increase our use of solar power.

Japan is forecast to have 370,000 solar roofs by 2005, and Germany 140,000. The UK will have no more than 3,500 by that date.

In some respects the developing world is ahead of the UK. By 2001, over 700,000 solar home systems had been installed in developing countries.

EPIA/Greenpeace Projections for 2020 indicate that solar photovoltaics technology could easily supply electricity for over 1 billion people, including 30% of the entire continent of Africa, and provide 2.3 million jobs. New Labour has a long way to go to catch up with such thinking.




In opposition, Labour favoured statutory targets to cut domestic energy use by 30% within 10 years. But after 5 years in government, it had failed to act.

A Labour MP sponsored a private members bill to bring in the statutory targets. Everyone from Age Concern and Shelter to Friends of the Earth and the Green Party was behind the Bill - as were 400 MPs.

Environment minister Michael Meacher introduced wrecking amendments. When this failed (he was outvoted 9-2 in Select Committee), the government put so much pressure on the Bill's sponsor that he withdrew the Bill.

So central government has passed responsibility for domestic energy conservation to local authorities, which must have targets but don't have to meet them, and can't anyway because central government wouldn't provide the cash.




The government regards energy from waste as 'renewable' energy. But how can it be renewable, when you burn the stuff once and then it's gone forever? What's wrong with recycling it, so the resources are continually renewed and we reduce the energy used compared with new manufacture?

Darren Johnson GLA, leader of the Greens on the London Assembly

The government's idea of building dozens of new incinerators has been sharply criticised by all Green organisations. Not only is it an environmentally-unsound policy in its own right; it will also undermine the recycling industry.



Faced with difficulty in meeting air quality targets, the government has simply adopted lower targets.

Darren Johnson GLA, leader of the Greens on the London Assembly

The expert panel on air quality standards (EPAQS), advised the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to set certain air quality targets, but they were too stringent for New Labour. Michael Meacher defended the decision to be less rigorous by saying "The aim of setting targets is to stretch what would otherwise happen.... there's no point making targets so tight that we're almost bound to fail." ("Targets on air quality made easier for councils", Charles Arthur, Technology Editor, Independent, 6 August 2002.)

"Of course he could have insisted on more money going into meeting the targets, and less going into stimulating the pollution," comments Darren Johnson.



Labour policy on recycling is a huge lost opportunity in socio-economic terms. Green waste management policies are proven to generate more jobs per tonne of waste than either landfill or incineration. Banning throwaway containers for beer and fizzy drinks alone would create thousands of jobs.

Dr Molly Scott Cato, Green Party Economics Spokesperson

The Government has set only a low target for increasing recycling (30% by 2010) and has failed to give local councils sufficient money to achieve even this. The result is that dozens of new waste incinerators are being planned across the country. Labour spindoctors maintain the incinerators will be "green" if they "recover" energy by burning waste. Greens point out that (a) the policy of incineration undermines recycling initiatives, and (b) incineration is a gratuitous waste of useful resources that could be recycled or, better still, re-used (eg in the form of refillable bottles).






Labour policy on transport starts from false assumptions and goes downhill from there.

The government's 10-year plan was based on the fallacy that public transport costs will rise over 10 years, while motoring costs will fall by 20%. In other words, Labour has institutionalised in its transport planning the idea that prices will work in favour of cars. To have a Green transport system, you'd have to reverse that relationship, and start tilting the playing field towards public transport.

Basically, Labour has been attempting to meet its transport goals with a philosophy precisely at variance with them.

Prof John Whitelegg, the Green Party's Chief Policy Advisor on Transport



Before the 1997 general election, three Labour shadow ministers including John Prescott said New Labour was committed to traffic reduction. On taking office, Prescott made his famous claim that if in 5 years' time there were not far fewer car journeys being made, he would have failed. Then in its first white paper on transport, "traffic reduction" became "reduction in traffic growth", which translated from spin into vernacular meant 17% MORE road traffic even after a 10-year plan involving £180bn of investment.



The £180bn figure was itself a nice example of spin. It was divided more or less equally into roads, railways and local transport. But "local transport" (which might sound as though it means things like public transport and cycling facilities) includes things like local bids towards roadbuilding, so that roads get two bites at the cherry. And a high proportion of a local transport bid includes things like bridge strengthening - not local transport at all, but meant to facilitate the throughput of bigger lorries.

About a third of the £180bn was a fond hope for private sector investment, especially in the railways - which made it look as though the government was giving roads and rail equal priority, which of course it wasn't. The hoped-for investment in the railways hasn't happened. Britain has the most expensive rail service in Europe.



In practice Labour inherited the Conservative Party's roadbuilding plans, involving 100 new roadbuilding or -widening schemes.

This has involved some appalling breaches of faith. For example, prior to the 1997 general election Labour repeatedly promised NOT to build the Birmingham Northen Relief Road (the first private-finance motorway) - and approved it after just 6 weeks in office.



The root cause of the transport problem since 1997 - the petrol poured on the fire - has been the government's planning policy. Greenfield housing stimulates traffic growth to the tune of some 7 extra car trips a day on average per house. Build 1000 houses on a greenfield site, and you'll generate an extra 7000 car trips a day.

It isn't just housing, but other inappropriate developments, such as airport expansions. Even provincial Manchester airport will generate some 12-15m extra car journeys a year between 1995 and 2005, thanks to the Tory/Labour policy of expanding aviation regardless of the consequences.



The government has also been heading in the wrong direction on road freight - constantly trying to reduce taxation on it, having caved in to the hauliers' lobby. Lorries do 99%+ of damage to roads and simply don't pay their way. The government has raised the legal weight limit to 44 tonnes. It tells us that bigger lorries will mean fewer lorries, which will mean less pollution - but each time the weight limit has been increased, the number of lorries has increased too.



Meanwhile the government is signally failing on cycling. Its target is to quadruple cycle use between 1996 and 2012. In fact cycle use is in decline.





You'd think a government that professes to lead the world on climate change would know better than to want a massive expansion in aviation - the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases.

Jean Lambert MEP (Green Party, London)


The government is happy for us to see aviation as an "environment v economy" issue - and guess who wins, when they tell us aviation contributes £15bn a year to the UK economy?

But in fact, all aviation's environmental degradation turns into economic costs. £313m a year for the health effects of aircraft noise. Over £2bn a year for UK aviation's contribution to the bill for climate change.

UK aviation's total external costs have been estimated at £3.782bn a year - 26% of the EU total.

UK aviation gets £6.8bn of tax breaks every year - not including subsidies like the £550m of taxpayers' money given to BAe to help it build a new Airbus.

No wonder demand for air travel keeps rising, when it looks such good value. But we're paying through the nose in the form of hidden costs and tax breaks. Those who don't fly are subsidising those who do, and those who fly a little a subsidising those who fly a lot.

Add UK aviation's contribution to our balance of payments deficit - at least £3.5bn a year - and aviation's so-called contribution to our economy is more or less wiped out.

Yet only a month ago the government announced that it wants a massive expansion of the aviation industry. Meanwhile the IPCC tells us that by 2050, if we don't do something about it, aviation alone could account for 15% of global warming.

(See Aviation's Economic Downside and Air Traffic Congestion Charging, both at www.greenparty.org.uk/reports.)




New Labour policy is set to destroy 25% of UK farms - including many of the greenest - with the loss of 50,000 jobs.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley, Green Party Spokesperson on Agriculture Fisheries & Food

Labour's pro-globalisation policies - founded on a spurious belief that bigger farms are more productive - is set to wipe out the smaller farms which tend to be far better for wildlife and more likely to be organic.

Labour refused to accept the organic target set by leading Green pressure groups and demanded by the Green Party as a minimum - that 30% of our farming land should be organic by 2010.

The best Labour has done is to set a target that 70% of our organic food should be supplied by British farms. But it doesn't have a date for meeting this target.




Labour's planning policy is an engine for generating ecological degradation.

Cllr Jon Barry, former leader of the Greens on Lancaster City Council


Recent government housing reforms indicate an obsession with letting the private sector make money, rather than just getting the job done. This is despite all the evidence that councils can do the job better themselves, with lower borrowing costs, lower management costs and more accountability.

Xanthe Bevis, Green Party Housing Spokesperson


Labour's planning reforms will be a social and environmental disaster. The government effectively wanted to abolish the right of local people to question the need for - and location of - major projects like power stations, airports and motorways at public inquiries. They backed down on this, but still want to speed-up the process in order to make Britain more attractive to developers - part of Labour''s race-to-the-bottom globalisation policy.

Labour wants to create zones in every region where business can build what it wants without any planning controls. It wants to give more power to unelected regional bureaucrats to decide issues such as how much housing is built on greenfield sites.

The proposed reforms represent the most significant erosion of civil rights in planning by any government since the system was introduced in 1947. These measures would favour big business to the exclusion of individuals and communities.





The 'fluoride' which Tony Blair wants put into London's drinking water is hexafluorosilicic acid. It's derived from the pollution scrubber liquor of the superphosphate fertiliser industry. It's a hazardous industrial waste which it's illegal to dump at sea, and which is technically regarded as more poisonous than lead and only marginally less toxic than arsenic.

Darren Johnson, leader of the Greens on the London Assembly


Improvements in drinking water quality? This is an ironic claim coming from a government committed to the universal fluoridation of Britain's water supply. Although there is considerable evidence from mass studies in the USA, Canada and New Zealand that fluoride doesn't necessarily reduce tooth decay, Tony Blair's policy is that the whole country should be fluoridated.

The 'fluoride' used is hexafluorosilicic acid derived from the pollution scrubber liquor of the superphosphate fertiliser industry - a hazardous industrial waste which it's illegal to dump at sea, and which is technically regarded as more poisonous than lead and only marginally less toxic than arsenic.

Incredibly, this product has never been subjected to safety testing, although scientific studies have linked fluoride with a variety of medical problems ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to cancer. The Green Party is soon to publish a report entitled: TRUTH DECAY: A few things you might like to know about fluoride before Tony Blair adds it to your drinking water, which details the potential health risks from water fluoridation. (Draft report available by arrangement.)





Prescott claims Britain's beaches are cleaner. But a recent study found beach litter to be at 'unacceptable levels' and a 'threat to wildlife'.

Cllr Keith Taylor (Green Party, Brighton)

Beachwatch 2001 - a nationwide study of rubbish on the coastline, organised by the Marine Conservation Society and supported by the Crown Estate: http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_548950.html . Wednesday 20 March 2002.

But beach litter pales into insignificance with the threat posed by radioactive waste to the coasts of Ireland, North West England and Wales...




Sellafield pumps 2 million gallons of radioactive water into the Irish Sea every day. Research indicates that people living within 800 metres of the coast could be 30% more likely to get cancer than people living further inland.

Martyn Shewsbury, health spokesperson, Wales Green Party/Plaid Werdd Cymru.


Maybe nuclear power epitomises Labour's environmental thinking. Who would consider trying to resuscitate a dinosaur when evolution is pointing to a better way of life?

Dr Spencer Fitz-Gibbon, Green Party media chief


Research based on health service statistics, by Green Party science & technology spokesperson (nuclear physicist and established expert on low-level radiation) Dr Chris Busby indicates that people who live within 800 metres of the Irish Sea may be up to 30% more likely to develop cancer than those living further inland - due to the radioactive waste which BNFL discharges at Sellafield. (BNFL expected the waste to stay at the bottom of the sea. In practice it doesn't - it gets washed ashore, dries out on beaches and mud-flats, blows inshore and people inhale/ingest it. Research shows that prolonged exposure to very low doses of radioactivity from inside the body is much more harmful than exposure to the same doses from outside the body.)

Routine operations at Sellafield are having a bigger impact on the Arctic sea than the Chernobyl disaster did. Its emissions of krypton gas are measurable in Miami.




Tony Blair really believes in things like globalisation, Private Finance Initiatives and the 'war on teror.' But when it comes to the environment, his heart just isn't in it. His agenda is elsewhere. Frankly, he's just not up to it.

Penny Kemp, Chair, Green Party Executive


Tony Blair reminds one of Margaret Thatcher when she made her famous statement at the time of the Falklands crisis - that after dealing with 'humdrum issues like the environment' it was nice to have a real crisis on one's hands. He doesn't understand, as she didn't understand, that the global ecological crisis is the biggest thing to hit planet earth since the last ice age.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

When Labour's green rhetoric is viewed alongside its actual environmental record, a huge gulf can be seen between the spin and the reality. Tony Blair, John Prescott and Michael Meacher have all made powerful speeches about the impending disaster of climate change - yet their climate policy just doesn't live up to their fine words. They have all claimed Labour has achieved a great deal - yet when we look at their actions, and at examples of best practice from elsewhere (see below), we begin to see just how far they haven't come.

In fact, Labour's policies aren't merely inadequate. In some respects they are going entirely in the wrong direction - such as roadbuilding, nuclear power, globalisation, fluoridation, aviation, agri-business and most aspects of taxation - and in other fields where they could be racing ahead they are still crawling - such as non-nuclear renewables, green transport, green waste management, organic agriculture, air pollution.

This report is published on the same day that Tony Blair is due to make his main speech at the Johanessburg Earth Summit. But whatever he says, we can be confident from long experience that his policies will not live up to his rhetoric. Labour environment policy is still far more spin than substance.


Experience tells us that you just can't trust New Labour on the environment.

That's another reason why we need the Green Party now more than ever before.

Margaret Wright, Principal Speaker, Green Party of England & Wales









John Prescott says he is proud of Labourís environmental record and claims the UK has shed its image as the dirty old man of Europe. Other EU members - especially those with Green Party representation at government or regional government level - have implemented countless examples of environmental best practice which contrast sharply with the UKís lack of action on environmental issues. If Germany, France and Ireland can do it, why not the UK?

Some miscellaneous examples:

Recycling: Britainís record of 11% recycled household waste is a quarter of that of its northern European neighbours. The UK faces prosecution and fines of millions of pounds a day if it fails to meet the EUís legally binding targets of 50% by 2009, rising to 65% by 2016.

Plastic Bags: Ireland introduced a 15 cent (10p) tax on plastic shopping bags in March 2001. Michael Meacher responded in the May by promising a government report into the issue within three months. We are still waiting.

Industry: Finlandís wood pulp industry is the most environmentally friendly in the world, largely due to campaigning by domestic Green politicians in the early 1990s. Whilst record quantities of wood and wood pulp have been produced in recent years, chlorine bleach has largely been eliminated and air pollution from the industry has decrease to one tenth of its 1980 level.

Farming: Last summer Germanyís minister of consumer protection, food and agriculture, Renate Kuenast, spelt out her vision for 20% of Germanyís farming to be organic within ten years and farmers to play active roles as custodians of the countryside. At the same time the UK governmentís disastrous handling of the foot and mouth epidemic dramatically weakened its relationship with the farming industry and destroyed wider rural economies. Promoting a vision of organic farming has largely been delegated to Prince Charles.

Climate Change: Greens on Berlin city council have put in place a comprehensive climate protection strategy which aims to reduce CO2 emissions in the state of Berlin by 50% per head between 1990 and 2010. So far, Ä 220 million (£140m) has been committed to the project and preliminary estimates put the reduction in CO2 emissions between 1993 and 1995 at 10%. By 2000, emissions of greenhouse gases identified in the Kyoto Protocol had been cut by 18% making Germany, with its Green environment minister, a world leader on responding to climate change.

The Spanish Renewable Energy Programme is on course to achieve its specific objectives by 2004, which include: 4.5 MWp of photovoltaic systems, 10,000 m sq of solar thermal collectors, 3 MWf of geothermal energy, 50 apartments with biomass heating, application of the principles of the bioclimatic architecture in urban planning and building design. Compare this record with Tony Blairís intervention to block Des Turnerís Home Energy Conservation Bill last month.