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Failing to join the dots

August 14, 2007

Yesterday, the British media reported two important stories about our culture’s continued war on the planet we call home, but failed to make the links between them. We shouldn’t be suprised: failing to join the dots is a speciality of the mainstream media, for whom newsworthy items happen in isolation, for no discernable reason.

Here’s story number one: Britain claims to be leading the world on climate change, but a leaked memo proves this is a lie. The government is going to miss its renewable energy targets, and the memo encourages ministers to ‘wriggle out’ of them:

Government officials have secretly briefed ministers that Britain has no hope of getting remotely near the new European Union renewable energy target that Tony Blair signed up to in the spring – and have suggested that they find ways of wriggling out of it.

Of course, the reason for all of this is that the government has done very little concrete to change things, except impose more taxes. Green wash does not reduce emissions. Despite knowing the problems caused by road and air travel, government transport policy is still focused on road and airport expansion.

In other words, they haven’t got the message.

Here’s George Monbiot’s analysis:

I am sorry to be crude, but however else I try to say it, the phrase “lying bastards” comes to mind. In March, I claimed that the government was fudging its figures on cutting carbon emissions and that it was due to miss its targets for renewable energy. It denied the charges, claimed its cuts were ” correctly quantified” and suggested I had got my facts wrong. Yesterday, the Guardian published a secret briefing by civil servants admitting that the government’s programmes are way off track and urging ministers to try to amend them not with new investments but through “statistical interpretations of the target”.

Here’s the second environmental story: a few hundred protestors have set up a ‘climate camp’ outside Heathrow to protest against the proposed expansion of the airport.

Almost all the news coverage from the patronising British media has focused on the potential disruption to poor hard working families going on holiday. Some of the red tops have raised the spectre of terrorism. Here is The Scum:

MILITANTS were last night feared to be plotting guerilla tactics to hijack a week of peaceful climate change protests at Heathrow.

The activists want the London airport brought to a standstill at the height of the holiday season.

It is believed they will plant hoax suspect packages, causing misery for passengers as terror cops seal off busy terminals.

Very little attention is given to the message of the protestors – that current transport policy is unsustainable – and all the focus is on potential disruptions, illegal activities, and the benefit to the UK economy of airport expansion.

Two thousand police have been deployed to ensure that it’s business as usual, and anti-terror laws have already been used to stop and search people.

No mention of emissons targets or transport policy or any of the bigger picture – just a bunch of annoying hippies in a field, getting in people’s way.

Ironically, passengers are apparently quite sympathetic.

Even aside from the urgent question of climate change, there are plenty of other reasons to look at transport policy. Air and noise pollution is an obvious one, as is the impact of building more roads and runways on a island that already looks increasingly like a parking lot.

There is a more sensible way to move people from one place to another: trains.

Britain has the most expensive rail transport in the world. The typical cost of an intercity train journey is 55p per mile. If I drive, my fuel cost is 10p per mile. Most people do the same sum and drive everywhere. I’d love to take the train – but I can’t afford it.

A standard economy fare from Glasgow to London on the train – a journey of 414 miles (667 km) – is £148. I can fly to Europe for substantially less than that. A return air ticket to London is around £80 with BA – cheaper with budget airlines.

Is it any wonder air travel is booming?

And rail fares are set to increase by up to 30% above inflation over the next few years, as government plans to shift the cost of maintaining the rail network onto consumers – in other words, making punters pay so corporatins can keep making huge profits.

But when are we going to start paying the full environmental cost of road and air travel, which the entire planet is subsidising?

So, for a start, supporting the rail union’s campaign to renationalise the railways is good thing.

Congestion charges and high taxes on Chelsea Tractors and the like are a good thing to – but only if the money raised through this goes directly into funding sustainable transport. You can’t price people off the road without giving them alternatives, so making cities bicycle and pedestrian friendly is important, too.

The other thing that bugs me about the whole environment and climate change debate is how all the responibility is shifted onto ordinary people, who are made to feel guilty for going on holiday or taking the kids to school in the car.

I agree that ordinary people can make a difference, but in the current climate you’re very much going against the grain, and it’s an uphill struggle. The amount of difference you can make compared to the effort you put in doesn’t seem to make sense. It feels like the whole of society conspires against you to make green living as difficult as possible.

I pay Glasgow City Council £125 per month council tax for the bedsit I live in (for non-UK readers, this is a property tax paid by tenants), but I still have to drag my recycling to the bins at the end of a lonely and windswept parking lot. And there is nowhere in the West of Scotland to recycle old computer equipment. Despite this, the Council has been popping leaflets through my door about their wonderful, non-existant recycling policy.

Our whole society needs to change to make earth-friendly living easy, enjoyable and empowering, rather than the chore it is currently. This requires political will, not greenwash, and the climate camp protestors are correct to highlight this.

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