From: Arthur Max, Associated Press
Published March 14, 2007 12:00 AM

European Politics Turn Green, But How Much Is Hot Air?

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- British opposition leader David Cameron rides a bike to work. German Chancellor Angela Merkel switches to low-energy lightbulbs. Pro-business French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy promises to double taxes on polluters.


Around Europe, politicians are vying to establish green credentials, tapping into the growing concern about climate change.


"Climate change has soared to the big leagues of the political agenda in the last six to nine months," said Richard Tarasofsky, head of the Energy, Environment and Development Program at London's Chatham House think tank.


He attributed the change partly to high oil prices, unseasonable weather and the popularity of "An Inconvenient Truth" -- Al Gore's film on global warming.


Britain became the latest battlefield for green one-upmanship Tuesday, when Prime Minister Tony Blair's government proposed legally binding targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, in this case 60 percent by 2050.


Climate change is expected to be a central issue in Britain's national election.


On Monday, Cameron, the young Conservative leader who changed his party's logo from a torch to a tree, said greening the world must go beyond tackling aircraft emissions -- the party has proposed taxing frequent fliers -- to projects on the ground, such as recycling house building materials and implementing clean farming practices.


The British bill was announced only days after European leaders adopted an ambitious set of goals to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. By then, at least 20 percent of Europe's energy should derive from renewable sources such as wind, solar panels and hydroelectricity.


They also decided to increase energy efficiency by 20 percent, and to ensure that at least 10 percent of fuels will come from biofuels like ethanol.


"It was a good first step," said Mahi Sideridou, the climate spokeswoman for the environmental group Greenpeace. "Now we have to see what they do over the next few months and years. That will be the test."


Not all politicians are adept at wearing the green mantle.


Belgian Defense Minister Andre Flahaut raised eyebrows when he flew 50 miles in an army helicopter from Brussels to Hasselt to attend a showing of Gore's film on global warming. Flahaut said he was only hitching a ride.


In Germany, lawmakers from the governing Social Democrats were invited to a private screening of Gore's film at a movie theater about 500 yards from their offices. Though they were asked to leave their cars at home, some were spotted by German media driving up to the nearest corner, then walking the rest of the way.


Blair, widely credited as being in the vanguard on climate issues, pulled a similar stunt, pointedly strolling out of the courtyard of the EU summit center in Brussels under the glare of TV cameras -- only to be followed up the ramp by his official motorcade.


The French presidential elections also are caught up in the green debate, with Socialist Segolene Royal trumpeting her record as a former environment minister, against the business-friendly Sarkozy, who is pledging to double taxes on polluters.


In the Netherlands, the newly installed government incorporated an aggressive environment plan in its coalition pact. The Dutch, who already have tough building codes on new houses to conserve energy, may consider a tax break on the sale of 19th century homes for new owners who improve insulation, says Diederik Samson, a Labor Party member of parliament's environment committee.


German Chancellor Merkel, who guided last week's EU summit toward the landmark emissions targets, made a point of telling reporters she had replaced all the old incandescent lighting in her home with energy-saving bulbs.


But Sideridou, of Greenpeace, criticized Merkel for caving in to the powerful German motor industry and swatting down proposals to impose speed limits on the country's free-for-all autobahn.


"There's a huge gap between what's being said and what's being done," said Sideridou.


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AP correspondents across Europe contributed to this report.


Source: Associated Press


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