Peter Madden, chief executive of Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe.

Gordon Brown

Britain has a new prime minister. After leading the country for 10 years, Tony Blair has stepped down. Gordon Brown, Blair’s number two for the past decade, takes up the reins.

Brown is viewed as solid and dependable, if a little dour. He is slightly to the left of Blair on most issues, though he has also pushed through a lot of business-friendly policies.

Gordon Brown is notoriously difficult to read; he gives very little of himself away. So what can we expect on the environment from a Brown premiership?

I, along with some other environmentalists, spent an afternoon with the prime-minister-in-waiting last week examining what he should do on climate change. From this and discussions with his advisers, I am beginning to get a sense of where he will put his energy.

Like Blair, Brown will spend a lot of time on international climate change diplomacy. He knows that this is a global problem needing a widely supported international framework. He realizes that the prospect of a much more engaged and positive approach in the U.S. could help to deliver a much more ambitious and meaningful global deal. And he believes that the U.K. is well placed to be a bridge between Europe and the U.S. By putting David Miliband, the youthful former environment minister, in charge of foreign affairs, he will have a knowledgeable and energetic negotiator on climate change at his side.

Brown has long been passionate about international development issues. He has worked tirelessly on providing debt relief for Africa and increasing aid flows. It seems like he will start to focus much more seriously on the impacts that climate change will have on developing countries. Oxfam, the aid agency, estimates that adaptation will cost developing countries at least $50 billion each year. Brown will work to mobilize the international political will and the funds to help poorer countries adapt.

Climate change will also dominate Brown’s domestic environmental priorities. He is likely to focus a lot on technology. Like Blair, he has a strong belief in the ability of technology and ingenuity to solve problems. We can expect him to work with and encourage business leaders who want to invest in solutions. And he is likely to provide tax breaks and other support for green R&D.

It is on housing and buildings that he will really direct his efforts. More than half of our CO2 emissions come from buildings. Britain is suffering a housing shortage, and we are about to build a whole lot more houses. We will have to squeeze millions of new homes into an already crowded island over the coming years.

Brown has made an ambitious pledge that “within ten years all new homes would have to be zero carbon.” This is a huge challenge for the house-building sector and should lead to a lot of innovation.

He also announced a clutch of five new “eco-towns,” with a combined total of 100,000 zero-carbon homes. It is not just the houses that will meet zero-carbon standards and run only on renewable power. The towns will also have zero-carbon schools and health centers, as well as lots of cycle lanes and public transport.

In the U.K., our existing housing stock is not very energy efficient, and this is where the big gains are to be made. Brown recently recognized this: “[N]ew homes are only a small percentage of the total. So today I want to extend our ambition to all homes. Over the next decade my aim is that every home for which it is practically possible will become low carbon.”

What about the other big environmental issues? Here the signs are less positive. Brown has shown little attention to wildlife and biodiversity issues. It is not clear how he will tackle wider resource-use issues. And he has already made it clear that on land-use planning issues he wants to put the needs of business productivity first.

Under the new prime minister, I suspect that the dominant theme will be continuity in environmental policy. Brown will stick to most of the priorities of his predecessor. However, he will also want to put his own stamp on things. Environmentalists in the U.K. are waiting to see what he has up his sleeve.