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Cars and the environment

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Issue 1716

Cars and the environment

THE government and some environmentalists claim that the fuel tax is a measure to protect the environment and slow down global warming. The oil companies and sections of the right suggest that global warming is a myth, and concern for the environment is a form of “political correctness”. Both arguments are wrong.

Global warming is real. The largest ever official study of global warming done in Britain concluded, “Human-induced climate change is threatening to impose very significant shifts in temperature, rainfall, and extremes of weather and sea levels.

“The environmental and social consequences of such changes are potentially catastrophic.” Most scientists agree that those changes are already under way.

They could mean freak weather conditions and rising sea levels over the next couple of decades. For Britain that would mean devastating flooding, and erosion of cities and towns in coastal areas. There would be more far reaching damage later this century.

We have already seen the storms and floods that have killed tens of thousands of people and made millions homeless in India, Bangladesh, parts of Central America and elsewhere.

But the fuel tax introduced by the Tories and continued by New Labour until last year has nothing to do with slowing global warming by cutting car use. The money raised from the fuel tax has not been ploughed into public transport.

The cost of petrol has increased, with the bulk of the recent rise due to oil companies’ profiteering. But most people still find they have to use a car. A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that a 1 percent increase in petrol prices leads to a short term fall in car use of less than 0.5 percent.

The fall is only temporary. So car use has risen along with the price of fuel over the last decade. The fuel tax has become a highly efficient way for governments to rake in money, with working class car owners suffering most.

Most people, including four out of five car owners, would prefer to use public transport. But they are trapped in a vicious circle. Buses are privatised and, outside London, deregulated. Fares have increased by 30 percent in the last 15 years, even after allowing for inflation.

The infrequent and unreliable service has driven people away from bus use towards cars over the last 20 years. The resulting road congestion has made bus journeys in cities slower and less predictable, which further discourages more people from using them. Since rail privatisation fares have soared.

Flexible working hours mean the number of car journeys people have to take for work is increasing. The market in education means many children cannot get into the nearest school and have to travel.

More cars on the road mean more child pedestrian deaths. Parents are reluctant to let their children walk to school, so “school run” car journeys have doubled over the last 20 years.

The Tories, the oil companies and the hauliers do not give a damn about rising pollution and greater frustration. They want people to focus narrowly on fuel tax.

The Tories are so opportunistic that even one of the fuel protest leaders denounced their belated call for a fuel tax cut. The oil companies know if fuel tax is cut by 10p they will cut the price by less than that and pocket the difference.

The big hauliers want the government to cut the tax only on diesel. That will provide no benefit to working class petrol users. Socialists have something else to say.

Seizing just half the oil companies’ profits could pay for an emergency plan for public transport. That money would not go into subsidising private companies like Railtrack, which got 2.2 billion of public money last week.

Nor should it go into John Prescott’s tube privatisation scheme. It would go into a publicly owned transport network, which 75 percent of people want.

In the meantime the government should force the oil companies to curb prices. The conflict in society is not between working people with cars and those without. It is between all of us on the one hand, and the oil companies and the rest of big business on the other.

Car use could be cut through a huge expansion of public transport. It would be a first step to stopping global warming. Fully achieving that requires seizing more than a slice of big business profits.

It means taking over the economy as a whole and reorganising it to raise people’s living standards, meet their needs, and use the enormous technological changes of recent years to create a safer, cleaner world.

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