BRITAIN is planning to make its highways a key testing ground in a bid to curb pollution and boost the quality of life of its citizens.
Claiming to be the first European leader to unveil an environmental blueprint that meets the commitments made at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Prime Minister John Major has signaled a series of sweeping changes in Britons' lifestyle. They include:
* Progressive curbs on the use of cars, including road tolls and higher taxes on gasoline.
* A renewed drive to clean up rivers and beaches.
* Plans to encourage the conservation of forests and the establishment of new ones.
* And measures to protect a wide range of threatened birds and animals.
Mr. Major says the centerpiece of Britain's post-Rio strategy, however, will be a campaign to persuade Britons to ``drive less and walk more.'' Motorists' organizations have indicated that the government can expect to meet stiff resistance when it starts to implement restrictions on road use and boost the price of gasoline.
New taxes aimed at discouraging the use of cars, Major said on Jan. 25, will be combined with a system of tolls charged for driving on highways. At present British motorists, unlike those in France, Italy, and other European countries, can use the nation's roads free of charge.
The Major government is already committed to introducing a system of electronic tolls on national roads within the next decade. The prime minister says a rising scale of gasoline taxes will be introduced in the next few years.
The aim is to reduce what he calls the ``social cost'' of road use, mainly air and noise pollution, traffic congestion, and accidents.
This social cost can be quantified, says David Pearce, professor of environmental economics at London University, who estimates it at between 23 billion British pounds and 26 billion British pounds ($34 billion-$39 billion) a year.
To reduce the social cost of road use, Major has warned, will require ``painful political action.''
``People may not always be able to make journeys as easily or as cheaply as before,'' Major said, adding: ``They will have to reconcile their desire for travel with their desire to protect the environment for future generations.'' Government figures indicate that if no effort is made to curb cars on Britain's roads, by 2025 the volume of traffic will be double that in 1989. Britain, a relatively small country with a population of about 57 million, has a concentrated and complex road network.
In April, Britons will get their first taste of the kind of sacrifices needed to help the environment when they begin paying an 8 percent value-added tax on domestic fuel. The tax is set to double a year later.
The Labour opposition is currently training its fire on what John Smith, its leader, describes as ``an unnecessary tax that will bear hardest on the poor and elderly.''
Motorists' organizations have warned Major to expect opposition when he begins implementing his plans to curb car use. The Automobile Association, the largest car owners' club, has found that about two-thirds of its members oppose road tolls, and even more are against threatened increases in the price of gasoline.
Major has suggested that increased use of nuclear energy may be necessary in the 21st century if fuel gas emissions are to be held in check. His remarks drew criticism from Friends of the Earth and other antinuclear environmental groups.
MAJOR has set his sights on meeting the Rio goal of cutting emissions of carbon dioxide - which some scientists link to rising global temperatures - to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Vehicle emissions would be cut by 2.5 million tons by that time, according to government figures.
Other measures included in Major's environmental blueprint have gotten less press attention than the curbs on auto use, but are not universally applauded.
Major's biodiversity action plan, for instance, proposes measures to conserve 24 animal species classified as threatened, including the European otter and the white-tailed eagle. It also calls for special measures to safeguard species that can be found in Britain in globally significant numbers. Half of the world's gray seals, for example, live in Britain.
But Major's action plans do not go far enough, says Jonathan Porritt, a leading ecology campaigner. Mr. Porritt welcomed the plans but urged Major to provide more detail on goals and timetables.