It is time to re-awaken the environmental challenge as part of the core of British and international politics.
One of the Apollo 15 astronauts recently told me about his experience looking down at the Earth from the Moon in 1971.
He described seeing a fragile blue ball suspended in space, the only colour in the universe, and the only place where the human species can survive; and of how conscious he and his fellow astronauts became about our stewardship in caring for our world, and the responsibility that brings.
Much has happened since 1971. In particular, the late 1980s saw a marked resurgence in the green movement. It was a fresh political presence. There was an energy behind it. It appealed to the young. But the environment also became the focus for new doubts about the capitalist order. Unconstrained growth, unregulated business, modern levels of consumption would, some argued, end in destruction of the world around us.
Evidence of global environmental damage did indeed increase with time. And the burgeoning movement sought to convey a sense of urgency, searching for global solutions for global problems. It was successful at raising awareness, alerting people to the environmental damage going on around them.
But whilst many governments became greener, dialogue between them and the green movement did not always conclude with a meeting of minds. And slowly, as the message became less novel, as the publicity machine moved on, environmental issues slid back down the political agenda.
Today I want to invite you, environmentalists and business, to join me in changing that. I want to push green issues back up the political agenda. Reawaken the challenge. And I want to do it in constructive partnership - government, business, the green movement and the public. A partnership not where we always agree - that would be an impossible demand, but where we have at least some common aims and understanding of each other's necessary contribution to them.
We might begin by agreeing a set of core principles:
* That we proceed according to science and a set of common values
* That we build a business case for the environment, working to harness clean technologies, seeing business as part of the answer rather as the problem
* That we acknowledge that technology alone will not fix things, and that there also has to be a framework, set by government, within which business works
* That we must seek global solutions to global problems, as we have done at the Climate Change summit in Kyoto
* And that we must find new ways for people to play their part individually in developing a common agenda to improve quality of life.
So let's move the debate on. We should not kid ourselves. There will be some areas of professional disagreement and others where there are hard choices between ideals and realism.
Take petrol. We know the damage CO2 emissions do to our environment. Individual families experience air pollution. We also know many of those same families depend on their car, especially in rural areas, to work, to take children to school, for leisure. We need to find a way through this for them, not simply pose two extremes, one of which is environmentally dangerous, the other of which is unrealistic.
Take housing. We are balancing the huge pressure to build in the south east, with the necessity to protect the countryside. We have rightly increased the proportion of new housing built on brownfield sites to 60 per cent. But I am acutely aware that for many that is not enough. But even attaining that, will be full of real political risks.
Or take GM foods. Contrary to the myth that somehow wicked multinationals and politicians have pressed us to be pro-GM, I am fully aware of the potential impact on biodiversity and people's concerns about health. I am neither pro not anti. I simply say: let us evaluate the technology, test it, and then make a judgment; rather than ban it before we even look at it.
These tensions are natural and we shouldn't try to gloss over them. There are at points real conflict between the immediate interests of consumption and the longer term interests of the environment; and to be frank, between the politicans' need to woo the electorate a well as lead them.
My point is simply this. We must work at resolving these conflicts or finding a way through. And we should recognise that to be environmentally conscious isn't a punishment. It is indeed in our long term interests; and it can also be of benefit, short and medium term too. What's more there is a real concern and desire amongst our people, within realistic bounds, to do the right thing. We have children and granchildren.
We care for them. We know that despoiling the environment today will mean hardship, even death for them tomorrow. Call it idealism or even just family values: there is an energy and commitment there we can harness.
Where 15 years ago many thought that there would always be a trade-off between progress and the environment, we can now see a way through. What becomes clear is that to preserve what we value most - our local environment, the countryside around us - we must protect the whole earth, and do so by pioneering new ways of building, working, living. New technologies to deliver a low carbon economy; to use our finite resources more efficiently, to reform national and international institutions and create positive incentives to be green.
In short, we don't halt progress and retreat into the past, nor do we carry on regardless. Instead we take pride in our progress. Using our creativity in partnership to protect the environment.
We have made a lot of progress over this Parliament. Through John Prescott's leadership, and the hard work of Michael here on the platform with me, we can point to measurable achievements. We are on track to meet our Kyoto targets. Air quality is improving. London now has the cleanest river of any major city.
But we have to face a stark fact. Neither we here in Britain, nor our partners abroad, have succeeded in reversing the overall destructive trend. The environmental challenge continues to grow and become more urgent:
* There are alarming changes in our atmosphere, in global temperatures, in weather patterns, in sea levels and in the protective ozone layer. As a result, across the world millions face drought, flooding, disease. Here in the UK we too face threats - the prospect of exotic diseases becoming commonplace, of increased levels of skin cancer, of floods in some years, droughts in others, of low lying areas being swallowed by the sea.
* Global population growth will put increased pressure on natural resources. The world pop is set to rise from 6bn to 9bn by 2050. So that economies across the world have the opportunity to develop, we must all use resources far more efficiently and switch to clean technologies.
* Fresh water is being polluted or simply used up. Demand is doubling every 21 years while supply is broadly unchanged.
* Soil degradation has affected two-thirds of the world's agricultural lands over the last 50 years, and the situation is getting worse.
* Half the world's wetlands have been lost over the past century and with them their unique plants and animals; and this is accelerating
* One in ten of the world's tree species are at risk of extinction, and increasingly whole forest systems are under threat
* Fishing fleets are still 40 per cent larger than the oceans can sustain and yet it still benefits from subsidies, world wide
* Here in the UK farmland birds are disappearing, the house sparrow, once more cockney than the Cockneys, is now a rarity in London, and congestion means that urban traffic moves at the same speed as in 1890.
Of two things I am certain. We are not going to turn this round unless we re-engage the political system on the importance of the environmental challenge. We are not going to be able to engage consumers and business unless we offer them a positive agenda.
A new approach to the environment
We need to build a new coalition for the environment, a coalition that works with the grain of consumers, business and science, not against them. A coalition that harnesses consumer demand for a better environment, and encourages businesses to see the profit of the new green technologies. and a coalition that stretches across national frontiers.
The central theme of our approach is a more productive use of environmental resources. It is clear that if we are to continue to grow, and share the benefits of that growth; we must reduce the impact of growth on the environment. Some commentators estimate that we'll need a tenfold increase in the efficiency with which we use resources by 2050 only to stand still. Above all, we need to be clear about our priorities, and the principles that underlie our approach:
* First, the greatest threat to our environment today is climate change. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has said that the UK will have to cut the CO2 we produce by 60% by 2050 if we are to slow down the pace of change. If there is one immediate issue that threatens global disaster, it is the changes in our atmosphere.
* Second, problems need to be addressed at the right level. A problem like climate change requires international as well as national action. The reason for taking the lead in cutting national emissions, as we have in the UK, is to give us the standing and authority in international negotiations. And developed countries, as the principle producers of greenhouse gases, should set an example for developing ones.
* Third, we should harness consumer demand, not stifle it. We should not be trying to reduce people's aspirations, but rather find innovative ways of satisfying those aspirations. As our societies become more prosperous, so people's demand for a better environment is growing. More and more people want to buy green. We should encourage that, and harness that green consumer power in our environmental policies
* Fourth, we must stimulate science and innovation. I reject the pessimistic notion that most environmental problems can only be managed, not solved. Technological advance does offer opportunities, particularly to counter climate change and provide alternatives to finite energy resources.
* Fifth, we need to use environmental resources more efficiently and to become a low-carbon, recycling economy. We need to become much more effective about how we use finite resources. Stephen Byers set out a radical new direction in his speech to Greenpeace's Business Conference earlier this month, focussing on resource productivity and the Government's programme to boost renewable energy.
* Lastly, we should see protecting the environment as a business opportunity. There is a growing market for environmental goods and services - currently worth an amazing US$335 billion - as large as the world market for pharmaceuticals or aerospace. I am not saying that the interests of business and the environment have become identical. But we should exploit them and develop them when they are. Otherwise, history shows us the environment risks being the loser.
New Labour's Green Agenda
I make no apology for the priority we have given education, health and crime. Yet no other British Government has had a Deputy Prime Minister in charge of environment policy. And no other British Government has put the environment at the heart of its policy-making across the board - from foreign affairs to the national curriculum - in the way this Government has. Since 1997, we have:
* Taken a lead internationally, as at Kyoto.
* Introduced an air quality strategy going beyond even the tough new European standards
* Cleaned up decades of pollution of our beaches and rivers, and given greater protection to important wildlife sites
* Factored environmental considerations into all our legislation and policy, from the Utilities Act to innovative fiscal measures such as incentives and hypothecation
* And as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review, started to invest billions in transport to increase choice and cut congestion and pollution
Yet I would be the first to say that there is still a lot more we could and will do.
John Prescott will shortly publish the final version of our strategy on Climate Change. It will set out how Britain plans to deliver its international obligations to cut greenhouse gases by 12.5% and move towards a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions. This will include a 10% target for energy from renewables by 2010.
As part of the Climate Change Levy package, businesses will be able to claim capital allowances for investments they make in energy-saving technologies from next April. I can also announce that we will shortly be launching a new Carbon Trust in Britain that will channel up to ??50 million a year developing low-carbon technology, partly funded from the Climate Change Levy. We have worked closely with business and the research community since their participation is vital to the Trust's long-term success. The Trust will take the lead on low-carbon technology and innovation in this country, and put Britain in the lead internationally.
We will also be setting up an office to export Britain's low-carbon technologies, the Kyoto Mechanisms Office. This was suggested to me at a meeting I had on climate change with business leaders earlier this year. By encouraging the private sector to invest in innovative energy projects abroad, it will help tackle climate change and allow British business to seize new opportunities. The Office will start work in April 2001.
Next Spring, we will be launching the first national CO2 emissions trading system anywhere in the world. Emissions trading is one of the most powerful ways of harnessing the market to cut greenhouse gases. The trading system will set overall limits on emissions for CO2 producers entering the system, and allow them to trade "emission allowances" amongst themselves, to the profit of the cleanest factories and companies.
If we are to reduce our dependence on oil and high-carbon energy, we will need to develop commercially viable renewable energy. I believe government has a key role to play in assisting business build up the economies of scale in these new technologies so that they can compete effectively. Today, we are announcing proposals for ??50 million from the New Opportunities Fund to support offshore wind and biomass. The DTI is already providing ??39 million for new offshore wind turbines, and the first are about to go into operation off Blyth. Helen Liddle has set up a task force to examine ways of promoting solar energy. And I have also asked the Performance and Innovation Unit to undertake a comprehensive study into the future of renewable energy, with a view to increasing substantially our long-term investment.
Any environmental policy has to address the implications of the car. Transport produces around 25% of global CO2 and rising. Making public transport more attractive will take us only so far. The long-term solution is to make vehicles cleaner and more fuel efficient.
That is why we have used the tax system to roll out cleaner fuels. Lead in petrol is now a thing of the past, and we are now using tax incentives to promote ultra-low sulphur petrol. Through the EU, we have persuaded manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency by 25%. Vehicle Excise Duty is now linked to vehicle emissions for the first time. Toyota and Honda are now selling "hybrid" cars which are twice as efficient as conventional models. Honda's Insight does 80 mpg. Fuel cell powered electric cars will offer even more - truly pollution-free motoring. Both Mercedes and Ford plan to have them in the showrooms by 2004.
We will also be doing more to protect Britain's urban and rural environment. Our Countryside and Rights of Way Bill will protect wildlife and sites of special scientific interest. In our forthcoming Rural White Paper we will set out policies for a living countryside which is economically vibrant, conserves wildlife and landscapes and which everyone can enjoy. And the Urban White Paper will set out our National Strategy for Neighbourhood renewal. We are also proposing that the New Opportunities Funds should invest another ??50 million for quality of life in urban and rural settlements and for green spaces.
On recycling, we want to do more to harness the power of the market. The new Waste Resource Action Programme, led by business, will develop markets for recycled materials. A proposed further 50 million pounds from The New Opportunities Fund will help provide kerbside recycling for 700,000 households. I want to see every local authority offering doorstep recycling to take advantage of these new markets. And the office co-ordinating government procurement will soon begin trialling the purchasing of recycled products, using government purchasing to expand the market.
On regulation, our aim must be to raise environmental standards without imposing unnecessary burdens on business. Often, the most effective approach to raising standards is a cross-border one. That is why we are working with the European Commission and other member states to improve the regulatory process in Europe.
This brings me to environmental diplomacy. The international climate change negotiations remain a key government priority, and we will be taking a leading role in The Hague next month. I also want to extend the EU's economic reform agenda to new energy saving technologies. And I can announce today that I plan to attend the next Earth Summit in 2002, and I will be encouraging other world leaders to join us there.
Business, technology and the environment
Fifteen years ago, if you said business will help save the environment people would have laughed at you. Today, I believe that is a serious proposition.
As BP's John Browne has said, the enlightened company increasingly recognises that there are good commercial reasons for being ahead of the pack when it comes to issues to do with the environment.
Environmentally-aware oil companies are finding ways to recapture the CO2 produced by plant and equipment and pump it back underground to enhance the recovery of oil. They are working with car manufacturers on new technologies, from developing fuel cell cars, to putting hydrogen-powered buses on the road in Europe.
Shell is playing a major role in the move away from oil in power generation. Like its competitor BP, it is investing heavily in solar power. ABB recently shifted its focus from being a builder of traditional large-scale power plants to focus on small scale renewable technologies. It expects alternative energy solutions to account for US$1 billion worth of business for the company within the next five years.
It is increasingly clear that energy generation in the future will become a spectrum: from the cleaner extraction of energy from fossil fuels; through the move from liquid to cleaner gas fuels; new technologies that convert hydrocarbon fuels into energy without combustion; to, at its greenest end, the carbon free technologies of wind and solar.
The City and investment community is beginning to recognise the new commercial and environmental realities, and to make money out of them. The return on equity of the new Dow Jones Sustainability Group Index averaged 15%, compared to 8% for the regular index for the first half of this year. And more individual investors are choosing ethical investment portfolios which reflect their values. Legislation earlier this year on Statements of Investment Principles required pension funds for the first time to disclose whether they take ethical, environmental or social factors into account in their decisions.
The World Business Council on Sustainable Development, of which many of you here today are members, is driving forward the agenda to increase the efficient use of resources. I would also like to see more reporting on environmental and social performance. The pioneers of environmental reporting - companies like BA, BT, British Gas, and BP - are seeing increasing benefits from both improved efficiencies and public image as a result. This is something that all companies should be doing, and I am issuing a challenge, today, to all of the top 350 companies to be publishing annual environment reports by the end of 2001.
The role of civil society
Increasingly, NGOs are also putting more and more energy into offering solutions in partnership with business and government.
For example, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and Unilever have set up the Marine Stewardship Council to protect our endangered fish stocks. Thames Water and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have converted redundant reservoirs and treatment at Barn Elms into a fantastic new wildlife habitat. Fourteen companies, eight NGOs and three Government departments are working together on the Digital Futures project, to try to ensure that the e-commerce revolution happens in the most environmentally friendly way possible. And eight years ago Greenpeace began research on Greenfreeze refrigeration technology to reduce the destruction of the Ozone layer. It is now a highly successful example of green organisation and industry working together for the benefit of the Ozone layer. Coca Cola and Unilever have just announce they will move towards such alternative refrigerants such as Greenfreeze by 2005.
Government, business, the NGOs and the public need to move forward together. That is why we have set up the new Sustainable Development Commission. I have asked Jonathan Porritt to chair it and I am very pleased to launch it today. The members, drawn from business, local government, pressure groups and academia, will build a consensus, monitor our progress, and suggest ways we can reconcile the needs of the environment, the economy and society.
So the outlook is not all bleak. There is real progress. But it is a race against time, lethargy, and indifference. It is an urgent issue. People feel it; but they don't always know how to make a difference.
Millions of people around the country are "green" in their actions, their beliefs, what they care about. They want the air they breath to be fresh. They want the countryside they live in or visit to be protected. They have respect for the world around them - hate cruelty to animals, hate the destruction of natural beauty. They want their neighbourhoods to have parks and be free from litter, grafitti, kids with nothing to do, and crime. Millions recycle, more would like to. Millions of children care passionately about the environment. That is their politics. But they need to know the "how" as well as the "why".
The root of my political beliefs is the idea of community: of solidarity. Today such an idea can only live on, based on mutual rights and responsibilities. The essence of environmental politics is the notion of responsibility to nature and future generations to protect and enhance the environment. Its why we wrote it into the new Clause IV of our Party Constitution.
We have to show how this strongly held belief can translate into practical action. To do that, we need a partnership between government, business and the environmental movement, to extend the frontiers of progress, to show the way through. We need more understanding, more dialogue, a healthy recognition of areas of disagreement, and then a common campaign of explanation, to put across the urgency of the problems and the viability of the solutions.
We have one common aim: to show how by doing good to the environment, we enrich our lives, in quality and prosperity. Concern for the environment is not a yoke on our necks. It is the lifting of the yoke. The burden is lighter. The way is clearer. I believe it can be done.
Let's sell the new insight - we can be richer by being greener; and by being greener we will enrich the quality of our lives.