HE believes he is the man to lead the Liberal Democrats on a green crusade - and he aims to lead by example. Eastleigh MP Chris Huhne already drives an eco-friendly Toyota Prius and has a wind turbine on his roof to reduce his carbon footprint.

But does his party share his eco-vision, and will it be enough to bring him victory in the forthcoming battle for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats?

Speaking exclusively to the Daily Echo yesterday, Eastleigh MP Chris Huhne made one thing immediately clear - whatever the outcome of the contest he formally entered this week, he will always put his Hampshire constituents first.

The 53-year-old will face Sheffield MP Nick Clegg in what now looks to be a two-horse race for the leadership of the party, following the shock resignation earlier this week of Sir Menzies Campbell.

Although the fight for the leadership title has only just begun, both candidates yesterday promised the battle would be fair and that they had the utmost respect for each other.

Asked why he had decided to stand, Mr Huhne, who came second to Mr Campbell in the party's last leadership race, said: "I believe the Liberal Democrats are key to British politics, because some of the issues the Lib Dems address are only addressed by us."

This, he added, included decentralising control away from Whitehall to allow local communities to have more say on what happens in their area, and pushing environmental concerns.

He said: "We have been the party that has championed protecting the environment. It's important to the Liberal Democrats and it's important to the British people.

"This is a key issue and what I think, and what we as a party have been saying for a while now, is that climate change is an issue that is becoming more and more worrying and which needs to be tackled now.

"In politics it's beginning to take off, but it's still a relatively less important political issue than, say, crime, education or health.

"But what we are doing at the moment by not taking specific action to stop climate change is simply stealing the planet away from our children. We are living in an entirely unsustainable way and one day our children will wake up and say 'what the hell were you doing?'"

As the Lib Dems' environment spokesman, Mr Huhne was asked by former leader Mr Campbell to draw up policies for the party on climate change. The result was the party's proposal for a "zero carbon Britain" by 2050.

The policy is not just rhetoric, but binds the UK to reducing the amount of pollution it emits and which directly or indirectly impacts on the environment and climate change.

Mr Huhne said: "We have gone through every single part of the economy and looked at real ways to tackle things. So, for example, if you buy an economic car with low emissions you will pay no excise duty, but if you buy the opposite you will pay a lot more."

He also proposes investing more in renewable energies and those which make a difference to the environment (he has installed extra insulation and a condensing boiler in his constituency home) but says the key is to make the changes fit in with modern lives, rather than asking people to just make sacrifices.

Asked if this drive for the environment was part of his reason for standing for the leadership, he said: "Yes, but it's also a chance to put forward the ideas I'm passionate about."

As to how the leadership contest would be fought, the married former journalist and father-of-three, who was elected to the Eastleigh seat in 2005, said he hoped it would be a clean fight.

"Nick and I have talked about this, and we know that we are both important to the Liberal Democrats as a party and we want to go on working together.

"Ming did a very noble thing on Mon-day. I don't think anyone put any pressure on him, but I think he was very frustrated by what he was hearing, particularly the allegations he was too old."

Addressing concerns over his majority in the Eastleigh constituency, which stands at 568 votes, he said: "It's up to the people of Eastleigh. The voters here are very independent, but I think that when they warm to an MP, in the past they have tended to stay with them and I hope that's the same for me.

"Whatever happens in the leadership contest, Eastleigh will always come first - you must never forget the people who put you in Parliament.

"I hope I have built up a reputation as being an effective constituency MP and the service I give the voters in Eastleigh will continue to be A1."

Mr Huhne also promised not to repeat the situation that developed last time a Hampshire Liberal Democrat was poised to stand for the party's leadership. That situation led to the public humiliation of Winchester's MP Mark Oaten over allegations he had used male prostitutes.

"I'm very comfortable with my life, so nothing like that will emerge," he said.

Meanwhile his rival Nick Clegg was last night visiting Winchester Liberal Democrats.

He said he had nothing but "admiration" for Mr Huhne, and insisted the battle between the two former MEPs was not just "about personalities".

When pressed on the pair's "highly similar" policies, the party's home affairs spokesman added it would be "distressing" if two candidates of the same political party did not share common beliefs.

The new leader will be chosen by a ballot of party members and MPs and announced in mid December.