Bring in the police to save the planet

Election: the future - environment

Just as Thatcher broke the miners, so the government now needs

The environment is too important to be left to the environmentalists. It's not that they (we) do a bad job - almost all the environmentalists I know are intelligent, committed, driven people. The days of sandals and dreadlocks are over: some of us even wear suits, sit in boardrooms and occasionally talk to the Prime Minister.

But environmentalists face a problem. "The environment" is still seen as a soft-focus poor relation to the real hard-politics issues such as health, the economy, asylum-seekers, and so on. Throughout the election, it was the issue that dared not speak its name. The problem was not that it was too controversial: on the contrary, it wasn't controversial enough. Green issues are still so unimportant electorally that, last November, Labour admitted quite freely that it would not meet its own climate-change targets. Unlike Iraq, the environment is not even worth lying about.

Our political system is gripped from top to bottom by a peculiar kind of cognitive dissonance, where politicians openly acknowledge that environmental issues are the most important ever to face humankind, and yet even as they utter these words, business as usual hums on in the background.

This cannot be allowed to continue. The government should take environmental issues seriously over the next four years. And I don't mean "seriously" in the sense of inserting the word sustainable all over government documentation, printing it on recycled paper, and getting Margaret Beckett to plant trees every time she makes a trip abroad. I mean something else altogether.

The environment requires leadership, of the kind that we greenies - however sharp our suits - are not in a position to provide. It requires the government to stop hiding behind the ignorance of the public and to start taking some tough decisions - something Tony Blair claims to be good at.

Hardest of all will be deciding what to do about climate change. The heating of our planet - already apparent in rapidly encroaching flood damage, drought stress and glacial meltdown - is not something that can easily be assuaged through conventional means. What is needed is root-and-branch change throughout our society and economy, away from the profligate use of fossil energy and towards the lean use of renewables.

The first tough decision the government will have to take is whether to allow the continued expansion of aviation. With no techno-fix even remotely on the horizon, carbon emissions from aircraft will surely destroy any progress towards greenhouse-gas reduction. This is a powerful business lobby, and it will not be easy to challenge its growth. Air fuel should be taxed, and the era of low-cost flights consigned to history. No more airports should be built, and demand management should take the place of predict-and-provide. However, unless the facts are laid bare about aviation's cost to the environment, this could be a seriously unpopular move. The public must be forced to recognise its real-world choice: destroy the planet, or take a holiday closer to home.

The second tough decision will be whether or not to go for the nuclear option. Global warming could herald the second false dawn for nuclear power, which once promised electricity too cheap to meter. Although relatively carbon-neutral, nuclear power is still hugely expensive, would suck expenditure away from truly clean energy, and would leave a legacy of toxic radioactive waste for millennia. It would encourage atomic weapons proliferation if exported to the developing world, and - almost as bad - would split the emerging climate-change movement right down the middle, making the current disagreements over windfarms seem like lovers' tiffs.

Instead, the government should make a determined push for renewables, ignoring the wind-power antis where necessary and nurturing these emerging technologies with extensive legal and financial support. Small-scale wind and solar energy should be made easily available to householders, and programmes to reduce consumption implemented across the board. In the longer term, carbon rationing might be necessary, with tradeable permits issued annually to every British citizen in amounts that gradually decline to a truly sustainable level. Once carbon is in short supply, everything else begins to fall into place: insulating one's house suddenly becomes a must, while holding a wedding in Barbados would rightfully be seen as selfish and wasteful. Driving a sports utility vehicle down the high street would be regarded as a sign of stupidity rather than of material success.

But full-scale carbon rationing is still far off the political agenda. In the meantime, the government should prepare the ground with shorter-term measures, such as an immediate moratorium on new road build and motorway widening. All the experts agree: more road space simply generates more traffic. The billions of pounds saved can be shifted into promoting cycling and walking, thereby tackling the obesity crisis and saving the NHS billions more.

But road transport can never be brought under control as long as the road haulage lobby is able constantly to blackmail the government with new threats of blockades. According to the Department for the Environment, greenhouse-gas emissions from road haulage rocketed by 38 per cent between 1990 and 2002. Lorry drivers are now responsible for almost as much pollution as private cars, and more even than air transport. This is a reactionary political lobby that the Prime Minister must face down, or it will hold up progress across the board.

Part of the reason that road haulage is so dominant is the growth of supermarkets, which operate centralised, lorry-based supply networks over immense distances at huge cost to the environment. Supermarkets prefer imported produce to locally produced food, make car-based shopping virtually impossible to avoid, and destroy community cohesion by putting small shops out of business. In particular, Tesco's virtual monopoly on grocery retailing has gone unchallenged for too long. Now that many communities are trying to reject new supermarket developments, the planning system should be changed to prevent large-scale retail building projects, and the Competition Commission charged with beginning the process of breaking up Tesco.

With the supermarket cancer in remission, local eco- nomies can begin to rebuild. Farmers' markets are already enormously popular, and this trend should be encouraged, together with a conversion to organic growing throughout the agricultural sector. Farmland biodiversity is still in free fall, with once-common songbirds such as skylarks and thrushes increasingly endangered by industrialised chemical-dependent production. This trend can only be made worse by any introduction of genetically modified crops, for which the Labour government's baseless support should now be withdrawn.

Another lobby that needs to be dealt with firmly - and I do not say this gladly - is the fishermen. It is widely agreed by scientists that catches of cod, haddock and many other commercial species are at unsustainable levels. Once the fish are wiped out, communities that rely on the industry will die, too. Far better to nurture stocks back into recovery with temporary fishing bans and other tough restrictions; this is a battle that must now be fought and won in the EU. Critically endangered species such as shark, swordfish and bluefin tuna should come under the protection of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and restaurants that continue serving them should be prosecuted and have their licences withdrawn.

None of these measures can or will be implemented by environmentalists - they need committed support from the government. It won't be greens in knitted jumpers breaking up the truckers' blockades, it'll be the police, just as Margaret Thatcher used the power of the state to break the miners. Despite the march of globalisation, the state remains a powerful force. It just needs to be put to the right ends. Tough decisions need not always be bad ones.

Mark Lynas is the author of High Tide: how climate crisis is engulfing our planet (Harper Perennial)