Kenny MacAskill: Drivers must not act like National Rifle Association

Think Globally, Act Locally has been a phrase used by environmentalists for many years. It's also been invoked into legislation as taxes are imposed on plastic bags or possibly even plastic coffee cups. All to meet the growing pollution problems in the oceans and on land.
All the wind farms in the world wont suffice to hit emissions targets without action to target the combustion engine. Picture: Stephen MansfieldAll the wind farms in the world wont suffice to hit emissions targets without action to target the combustion engine. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
All the wind farms in the world wont suffice to hit emissions targets without action to target the combustion engine. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

But, that’s only the start. Our lifestyles will have to change and there’ll be a cost to it. Global action is going to have a local impact, and a price tag. Nominal charges on carrier bags are but the start of other environmentally based taxes that’ll need to be imposed.

For global warming is ever more threatening to humanity. Freak weather conditions are a prelude to what will come if we don’t change. The tragedies caused and refugees forced to flee to date will be as nothing if sea levels rise and already poor countries begin to burn up.

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Even climate change-deniers like President Trump will discover, as King Canute did centuries ago, that mother nature can’t be turned back. It recognises neither nation nor wealth, as rich states such as Texas and California, where fire and flood have wreaked havoc, have discovered.

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In Scotland, it’s caused harm, although not on the scale that others have suffered or with the same threat that many face. But, still it’s coming and we need to do our bit. After all, we’ve been a major contributor to it in our industrial past, as even the name Auld Reekie testifies.

So, the charges will have to go far beyond shops and cafes. For though laudable efforts have been made in Scotland, in particular with the push for renewables, it’s still not enough. Action is going to have to be taken on the combustion engine. It is transport which has been the main reason for failing to reach necessary targets that were rightly set. All the windfarms in the world won’t suffice, unless we reduce the emissions from motors.

Low-emission zones are needed and action on diesel engines is to be welcomed, even though my partner owns a diesel car. But, creating such zones will take time and on their own also won’t suffice. More radical action still is needed as the private car is arguably the single greatest problem we face.

It won’t be solved by electric cars coming over the hill like a latter-day cavalry either. That’ll be too little and too late.

Nor do they address the additional problem of just too many vehicles for the road. In some urban areas it’s not just getting in and out that’s an issue but simply getting parked. Action therefore requires to be taken here and now. And as with the plastic bag tax, it means imposing charges.

It will mean politicians going back on what was previously viewed as unacceptable. For it means interfering with the God-given right some drivers think applies to car use, which is sometimes akin to how the National Rifle Association in America thinks of gun ownership. It’s necessary to have a stick to beat some out of their vehicles and provide funds for the carrot of improved public transport to lure others on board.

Some charges have been sought for a while, such as work-place parking charges. Not only would they provide badly needed revenue, but they would mitigate against car use as air pollution worsens. They should be brought in as soon possible. Reducing speed limits has been done for safety reasons but likewise it has environmental benefits and has to be persevered with. It’s all part of a cultural change, as well as a cost-driven one and has worked in other parts.

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But, these are modest if not marginal steps. Further and more significant action will still be needed and that takes us to congestion charging. It was proposed in Edinburgh over a decade ago and rejected by a huge margin in a referendum. I opposed it vociferously then and was one of its leading opponents. However I objected to that particular scheme rather than the principle of it. The then Labour council’s proposals were an absurd plan that had citizens from the likes of Balerno and Queensferry paying to access their own city. Its boundary was far too wide and a more modest proposal limited to the city centre was ignored. That would have been acceptable to me and I believe a majority in the city.

However, since then the need to tackle global warming has increased, as have the consequences of increased car usage such as air pollution and congestion. Many streets are blighted by fumes, with the health impacts that follow.

And, like many, I find simply getting out of the city more difficult than any onward journey thereafter and that applies to any Scottish conurbation. Travel times to work have increased as a TUC report highlighted. To reduce congestion, better public transport provision is required. That comes at a cost which neither local nor national government can currently meet. An income stream which can be dedicated to improvements and indeed reducing cost is therefore required.

Not just London but many European cities have congestion charging and it works well. Major Scottish urban areas are not as pleasant to walk around as continental counterparts and it’s down to the traffic volumes.

The technology for congestion charging has improved, making it easier to impose, refine and collect. It can be tuned to avoid non-peak times for shift workers and when public transport is limited. But, at peak times it’s now becoming essential to discourage car use but also provide affordable public transport alternatives.

It’s not just plastic bags but cars and vans that should face environmental taxes. They’ll soon be coming to a town or city near us all.