27 November 2019

General Election 2019

The political climate

Environmental activism has spilled on to the streets. Has it reached the party manifestos? Here’s our verdict

By Giles Whittell

“This really is the climate election,” says Chris Stark, head of the Committee on Climate Change. But is it? There are plenty of reasons why it could or should be. This has been the year of XR, of Greta on the high seas, and of the school strikes she inspired.

There have been record heatwaves across Europe, Japan and the US. Voters have seen footage of large parts of California and New South Wales being burned to a crisp by wildfires blamed on climate change. David Attenborough presented Seven Worlds, One Planet, with the linking theme that there’s no planet B. The IPCC said climate change is creating new deserts at record speed. And Jeremy Clarkson, petrolhead, acknowledged what is happening for the first time after finding the Mekong river system reduced to a dribble.

On top of which, most British politicians at least pay lip service to the climate emergency and many seem to believe what they say about it. The polling, though, is more equivocal.

YouGov says 27 per cent of voters rank climate change among their top three concerns after Brexit and the NHS, up from one in ten two years ago. That number rises to 45 per cent for 18-24 year-olds.

Ipsos MORI puts public concern over pollution and the environment at its highest level in 30 years. But that is not quite as specific as climate change, and it ranks as the most important issue for Britain, or among the most, for only 21 per cent of voters, behind crime (24), health (36) and Europe (63).

So how have the parties responded in their manifestos?

The Brexit Party evinces little interest in climate change. It promises to plant millions of trees “to capture CO2”, but climate change itself goes unmentioned in the party’s “Contract With The People”, published on Monday.

Three other national parties – Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – have made a transition to green energy and green economic priorities the centrepiece of their domestic agenda. The Conservatives, for all their husky-hugging heritage, treat climate change as an afterthought. That may not be their intention, but it’s the distinct impression you get from comparing the manifestos side by side, like this:

 


Climate as pagination

Where you rank an issue in the table of contents and how much space you give it are basic but revealing metrics. The Tories have compartmentalised climate change, which is one reason it takes up only one page near the back of their manifesto. Another reason may be that climate change is very important for only 15 per cent of voters in the Midlands, where they need to take seats from Labour. For their rivals, the issue colours everything, which is why it takes up so much more space.

Verdict

Cons: Lip service

Lab: Bold

Lib Dems: Front and centre

Greens: Front and centre

 


Top climate textbite

The lexicon of climate change is evolving. All four parties have adopted “emergency” instead of or along with “crisis”. But the Tories can’t resist tying the issue to National Trust-style conservation any more than Labour can resist linking it to living standards. Both are valid linkages but only the Lib Dems have dared to talk about global leadership – which someone is going to have to provide.

Verdict

Cons: Obvious with a hint of buck-passing

Lab: Tell us something new

Lib Dems: No harm in dreaming

Greens: Lifts science up where it belongs

 


Climate spending

The £16 billion number for the Tories comes from Tortoise arithmetic that includes £9.2 billion to be invested in energy efficiency, including home insulation, and £4 billion for flood defences. The party’s pledge of £800 million for Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) could have been written in by oil and gas companies that want it but are loath to pay for it, although it’s a tiny sum compared with what’s required.

The Labour number is the party’s own, plucked from its £400 billion “National Transformation Fund” to create a “Green Transformation Fund” for biodiversity and clean energy and transport.

Our number for the Lib Dems includes £18 billion to invest in water, air, soil and biodiversity, £4.5 billion for new bus routes, and a smart £2 billion for ten more ultra-low emission zones like London’s.

The Greens’ £100 billion is a catch-all figure for the annual cost of a thoroughgoing green revolution in energy, transport, land management and housing.

Verdict

Cons: Smart focus on efficiency

Lab: Too big to mean much

Lib Dems: Sensible not to conjure a nine-figure number from thin air

Greens: Make it work in Brighton first

 


Power generation

The Tories are notably unambitious here. This wind target is the current one. (By contrast, Boris Johnson has a soft spot for nuclear fusion as a showcase of British ingenuity and a panacea for the world’s energy needs, but it’s not going to happen in his lifetime.) Labour is commendably keen on solar: the latest panels are the cheapest yet and they deliver power even when it’s cloudy. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens all pledge support for more exotic renewables like tidal, wave and geothermal power, without betting on any of them. By going all-in on wind, the Greens especially are sticking with what works.

Verdict

Cons: Timid

Lab: Detailed – now deal with the nimbys

Lib Dems: Doable – if you had a big majority

Greens: Smart – but critically dependent on storage

 


Power storage

Ah, the gigafactory, symbol of brave new all-electric everything. The term was coined by Tesla for the plant it built in Nevada to produce Panasonic batteries for its electric cars. Tesla flirted with the UK as a location for its European gigafactory but recently chose Germany instead, so Labour and the Tories will have to find someone else to oblige. The Lib Dems are oddly vague on energy storage considering they are betting the farm on renewable sources that fluctuate with nature. At least the Greens have all the right ideas.

Verdict

Cons: Vague considering importance

Lab: Oh really?

Lib Dems:  See Cons.

Greens: Homework done

 


Net Zero by…?

Theresa May deserves credit for making the 2050 deadline for net zero carbon emissions legally binding and making Britain the first country to take this step. But now 2050 looks slow.

Verdict

Cons: Outflanked

Lab: Right idea

Lib Dems: Cautious

Greens: See Lab.

 


Trees

Hats off to Labour for not jumping on this bandwagon. Hats off to the Greens for getting closer to what’s required long term with their headline manifesto number of 700 million, although NB: this is not a per-year number unlike the others. It’s a target for 2030. The context: according to the IPCC, humans need to be planting about a trillion extra trees to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. The UK is small but could still help, especially in Scotland, if landowners there were suitably incentivised with a proper price on carbon.

Verdict

Cons: Unambitious

Lab: “Ambitious”

Lib Dems: Aiming high

Greens: Aiming higher

 


Carbon price?

Alone among national parties, the Greens are committed to a carbon tax, albeit initially only on fossil fuel imports and domestic extraction. There is little prospect of the divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in clean energy infrastructure required to control global warming until big carbon emitters are made to factor the environmental cost of their emissions into their business models. When all Britain’s parties recognise this, we might have a true climate change election.

Verdict

Cons: Blinked

Lab: Blinked

Lib Dems: Blinked

Greens: Bold

Graphics by Chris Newell

This article has been corrected to show that Green Party’s tree-planting target of 700 million is for 10 years, not per-year