US 2012 presidential race: Sarah Palin is back

The race for the Republican candidate for Election 2012 is finally getting exciting, and not before

The Republican race for 2012 just got way more interesting. Yes, Sarah Palin is back – launching her "One Nation" bus tour this weekend, with a series of high-profile events across the country. She's already bought a house in Arizona and made some significant new appointments to her staff. Now her specially decorated red-white-and-blue bus will be touring the north-east, trying to recapture some of the political momentum that she has allowed to drift away.

"As we look to the future," proclaims her website, "we are propelled by America's past." Well, that certainly obeys the laws of mechanics. And if you click on her page, you get an automatic message asking for donations – to help "promote the Fundamental Restoration of America".

Since Donald Trump formally bowed out, it's been Newt Gingrich who's provided some of the lighter moments, what with his comments about Paul Ryan's Medicare plan being "radical" and "right-wing social engineering". Then there was his $500,000 bill from Tiffany's: a rather unfortunate start for a candidate promoting the merits of fiscal conservatism.

Now, though – as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann prepare to make their formal announcements next week – we might have a race that's worth watching.

Polar star

But is Palin really a serious candidate, or just a sideshow? Fairly serious, according to the polls, though polls don't reveal much at this stage, given that many of the potential 2012 field are hardly household names. However, the latest survey, by Gallup, shows that the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shares top billing with Palin among Republican voters, with other candidates left trailing in their wake.

The polls also show that she is one of the GOP's most polarising figures: overwhelming numbers of independent voters say they'd never vote for her, while more than a third of Republican supporters think likewise. Most people still think she's nowhere near qualified enough to be president – and attitudes like that are hard to break, when your character and track record are as public as Palin's.

But where her talents definitely lie is in self-publicity: the woman positively radiates self-confidence, and her rivals must be worried that she'll suck up all the oxygen of this campaign. None more so than Michelle Bachmann, the other right-wing Republican woman with her eyes on the White House, courting a conservative, Tea Party activist base.

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The Minnesota congresswoman is gearing up to announce her candidacy in Iowa next week – in the appropriately named town of Waterloo. She's just been holding an intensive fundraising drive, collecting an impressive $250,000 in a single day. But guess who's hogging the headlines? Palin.

According to the governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad: "We've never really had two dynamic women running for president in the Republican caucuses. I think it would be really interesting." Was that a euphemism for something? Is there even room for both?

Unlike Bachmann, Palin has yet to indicate anything definite about a possible run. She's still employed by Fox News, which has swiftly terminated the contracts of other presidential hopefuls – prompting Mike Huckabee, for one, to choose well-paid punditry over a far more nebulous political ambition.

And even though Romney's poll numbers show that he's steadily building quite a commanding lead among potential voters (not to mention a vast war chest of million-buck donations), many Republican luminaries are still searching for that magic someone who can capture the public imagination and heal the fractious divisions between the party establishment and its unruly Tea Party wing.

And if that's not Mr Romney, it sure isn't the Marmite of political candidates, Sarah Palin. Cue the flurry of speculation around the likes of Chris Christie, Rick Perry – even Jeb Bush.

At least the race is finally getting exciting, and not before time.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.