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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In Britain, recent elections swept the Labor Party into power. The fate of environmental issues now rests with the new Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Deputy John Prescott. Joining us from London to discuss the new ruling party and their environmental agenda is BBC environment correspondent Margaret Gilmore.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One of the loudest voices criticizing US environmental policies, particularly on energy and global climate change issues, has been the British government. Under Conservative Prime Minister John Major, Britain was a leader in calling for curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. But the Conservatives are gone now, replaced by Labor, and Britain's policy on the environment is now being made by its new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his deputy John Prescott. Joining us from London now to discuss the new ruling party and its environmental agenda is BBC Environment Correspondent Margaret Gilmore. Margaret, thanks for joining us.

GILMORE: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: Now, the first thing I like to ask, what is there in Tony Blair's record as a politician that gives us an indication of how he feels about the environment?

GILMORE: There's a story I have on the best authority that during the election campaign, he was sitting at the breakfast table, and his young son was making some comments about how, you know, dull politics tended to be. Tony Blair said to his son, "Well, what would we have to do to perk things up a bit?" And he said, "Well, dad, why don't you do something about the environment?" And at that point Tony Blair thought, hey, are we missing a trick here? As for his record, well, old Labor, you know, we have visions of them 15 years ago fueling, in a way, the battles to save the old coal mines. They've come right 'round now. We now realize that there was an environmental issue there that wasn't tackled by Labor at that time, and I think they've probably again swung away from that and realized that they are going to have to do something about fossil fuels, about emissions, about fumes. But they do have a problem, you see, because one of the things that the Labor Party has promised is to stimulate jobs and growth. In order to do that, they will probably need to push new developments, build new houses, you know, push limits out into the countryside. Do all the sorts of things that are going to fight all their environmental aspirations.

CURWOOD: Margaret, tell us about the series of pollution taxes that Labor has proposed.

GILMORE: The things they're thinking about are first of all a pollution tax, which is like -- at the moment we all get taxed for using our cars, and we all get taxed to fix them, whether we have a Rolls Royce or a tiny little Mini Minor. But what they're going to do is instead grade that system, so the smaller your car the less you pay. On top of that, though, the more efficient your car is, so if you have a very big old car you'll be paying more than a very big new car, and much more than an efficient little car. Do you see what I mean?


GILMORE: So all sorts of different ways of grading. On top of that there will be what they call sort of congestion taxes. Whereby companies building new offices will, if they're going to be bringing cars into the area, they'll have to pay more to do that. They will instead be encouraged to have a company bus bringing workers in. They will also only be permitted a small number of car parking spaces underneath their office block. And the other thing they're looking at, and this is something that the conservative government was also testing, it's quite a controversial thing and it's the idea of the road tax. Our big problem is the city centers. What you're going to have is like a smart card in your car, and you will actually be paying as you go into the city. An amount will be deducted from your little smart card.

CURWOOD: In terms of greenhouses gas emissions, Britain has been particularly aggressive on this issue in the past. Do you think this momentum will continue?

GILMORE: I think that it probably will not continue at such a rate. The Conservative government was very keen to be seen as a world leader in reducing greenhouse gases, and certainly Britain has a very good record. It's ahead of all its targets at the moment. It's met fairly or comparatively low targets in order to try and bring out the countries in Europe. And ultimately, also, to bring the great polluter, the greatest polluter in the world, which is the USA at the moment, to bring them on board, too. It was felt that -- the conservatives felt that if they said 10% reductions over the next 20 years, that was something that the USA might, might just come on board with. The Labor government, on the other hand, is saying no, we'll go it alone if we have to, but we're going to reduce these emissions in the next 20 years by 20%. That's a pretty strong target to go for. And environmental groups, even environmental groups, are asking well, is that really achievable?

CURWOOD: Here in the United States, the previous conservative president, Republican George Bush, came in saying he'd be the environmental president. Clinton came in making pledges that he would be very environmental. But many analysts look at the records of the two presidencies side by side and see that Bush pushed through far more environmental legislation than Clinton has managed to so far. I'm wondering, if we look back in history, will we likely say that oh, the Conservatives were in fact stronger on the environment than Labor?

GILMORE: I think in the last 5 years we've seen a Conservative government that has been strong on global environment issues. But you know, it's very difficult to tell. If Labor do, and they certainly have shown that they have a will to change the law. But you know, changing one or two laws in the very beginning is one thing. Let's see whether, as the year goes on and we go into next year, whether they're actually going to fulfill those promises. A lot of which were quite wishy-washy.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

GILMORE: My pleasure. Really interesting to talk to you.

CURWOOD: Margaret Gilmore is the environmental reporter for the BBC. She spoke to us from London.



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