This not so green land

The UK is near the bottom of the renewable energy league in Europe

One of the Prime Minister's principal advisers on the environment has accused him of frustrating efforts to reduce Britain's carbon footprint.

Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, believes Gordon Brown's old Labour roots make him suspicious of green issues. "Old Labour still thinks the environment is an agenda for middle-class, muesli-munching Guardian readers. And that's still a bit of Brown," says Porritt. "He's got this sort of latent contempt for anyone who chooses to put the environment at the top of their list of things that need to get sorted."

Brown's negative attitudes may have been influenced by political rivalry with Tony Blair, Porritt believes: "When Blair was in power strutting his stuff about climate change, Brown came to the quite proper pragmatic conclusion that if he's out there doing that then I'm not going to do it."

As a result, Brown put "no serious money" into energy efficiency and renewable power while Chancellor. "The Treasury under Brown never really understood sustainability," Porritt says. "Many of the reasons why the Labour record on sustainability after ten years is less good than it should be, go back to the Treasury."

The UK, with just over 1 per cent of total energy supply coming from renewable sources like wind and wave power, is near the bottom of the renewable energy league in Europe; only Luxembourg and Malta produce less clean energy.

Porritt also criticises Labour's record on fuel poverty. The latest figures show that 4.4 million British households - the highest number for almost a decade - are spending more than 10 per cent of their income on gas and electricity. Porritt says it is "completely scandalous" that Brown has not prioritised the issue and reveals that ministers are considering lowering targets to eradicate fuel poverty: "Millions of people are living in outrageously bad housing conditions. And, because funding is going down not up, the target will disappear."

Porritt believes that the Tories are making progress on green issues. Of Conservative leader David Cameron, he says: "His quality of life commission produced an extraordinary report. This has helped focus the minds of people in government that they are going to have an opposition taking this agenda much more seriously than has happened in the Tory party for decades."

Porritt is critical of Brown's decision to back nuclear energy stations and believes the terrorist threat has not been adequately thought through. "Brown said the nuclear power programme wouldn't come on stream until 2020. Everything, everything, this country needs to do to hit the 60 per cent reduction in CO2 by 2050 needs either to be in place or very nearly in place by 2020," he says.

"It's a miracle that terrorists have not found a way of harnessing . . . nuclear materials," Porritt says. "But there will be a nuclear terrorist related outrage in the not too distant future. At which point belief in nuclear power will come to a juddering halt."

A longer version of this interview appears in the current issue of "Environmental Health News"

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God