Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Greening and Non-Greening of England

A month in England puts a lot in perspective. The government's Iraq policy and the threat from British-born Islamist fanatics get most of the press in the United States, along with the future ot Tony Blair, which is very much in doubt—as is the future of his Labour Party.

For me, however, the question of Britain and climate change, which gets little coverage in the U.S., was far more interesting than the fate of Tony Blair. In the United States, climate change still appears to be controversial—not among scientists and those who understand the issue, to be sure, but among politicians in Washington. In Britain, there is no such controversy. Blair's government is publicly committed to making Britain a leader in curbing greenhouse gases, and the public seems to agree. His recent agreement with California on a carbon cap-and-trade arrangement was almost universally applauded in the United Kingdom. Even his critics thought it was a good idea, although with misgivings.

Those misgivings were well-founded. Critics like Mark Lynas of the New Statesman point out that the UK has the worst recycling rate in Europe; that the Blair government has in fact spent more on highway construction than on improving railroads and mass transit; and that greenhouse gas emissions from the British transportation sector have actually risen in the past five years.

A tourist can't really confirm any of this, but some changes are noticeable.
  • There are more big box stores, and an article in the Guardian business section confirms that the Blair government is encouraging this type of development because big boxes are more "efficient." (Economically, perhaps, but not for the environment.)
  • Automobile traffic is noticeably up in the English Lake District even though it is easier and less frustrating to leave the car at home and take the train (but see below). Everybody drives to the Lakes, and by the smell test, the air quality in the more popular towns is not what it was. Everywhere we went, not just in the Lakes, there seemed to be more traffic than last year.
  • Trains are overcrowded and often do not run on time. The overcrowding is good, in a way, because it means that people are using the trains. But it is bad because it makes the trains less attractive as an alternative to the private car.
  • The number of cheap package tours to holiday spots has increased dramatically. Air fares included in these packages are sometimes effectively zero, and are generally lower than similar fares in the U.S.
None of this is good for the environment in general, or greenhouse gas production in particular, and much of it is the result of government policies. Blair's commitment to controlling greenhouse gases, at the moment, seems chiefly rhetorical.

But the greening of England is not wholly an illusion. Blair's rhetoric may or may not be hollow, but outside the government there is a lot of ferment—a more-informed public discussion than in the U.S.; a number of good ideas, both old and new; and a growing interest in alternatives like green buildings and walkable shopping districts. These are encouraging. They will be the subject of future postings.