If you somehow haven’t heard, the UK has an election coming up… But what are the stances of the parties on action on climate change? Is the Green Party the only party with responsible views and pledges, or do any of the bigger parties have promising green policies? In particular, do Labour or the Conservatives really care about environmental issues?
In a recent Observer article entitled ‘Our undecided voters: who will they back?’, Raheela Shah, 21, from Tooting is quoted as deciding not to vote Labour this time and instead of backing the Greens.* She said
“I’m pretty attracted to the Greens as I think the environment is often overlooked; it would be good if more parties focused on it.”
Climate change isn’t something we can continue to postpone. In 5 years time, given insufficient action, we will be significantly further along the path which will see global mean temperatures rising at least 2°C above the pre-industrial average. It is not good enough to postpone a vote for the environment until the next election. This has never been more the case, with Donald Trump extricating the United States from the 2015 Paris agreement.
Will voting for the Green Party make a significant enough difference? Is Raheela’s approach the best to take, with so little time to act to stop or, failing that, mitigate the damage climate change will inevitably cause? Here I will attempt to establish how committed the major parties are to tackling the grandest of problems posed by climate change, and the plethora of related issues. In each case, parties are graded on a greenscale, from climate-championing bright green, through ineffective grey-browns to dangerous reds.
Ratings will be based on the following ten categories. In each category, 1 point will be awarded for a good policy, 0 points for a mediocre policy and -1 points for a damaging policy, with half-points available.**
- Zero carbon target (ambition; feasibility)
- Renewable energy (support for)
- Fracking, oil, coal and nuclear (opposition or reasonability of argument)
- Energy efficient homes (policies)
- Air pollution (level of concern; policies to tackle)
- Sustainable transport and airport expansion (support for; expense)
- Education, research and development (into e.g. carbon capture and storage)
- International agreements (e.g. Paris accord) and post-Brexit environmental regulations
- Lifestyle encouragement (e.g. cycling; vegetarianism)
- Green belts, national parks and conservation.
[Disclaimer: I have tried as best as I can to leave my own personal politics out of this piece. However (as a human being) I cannot guarantee absolute objectivity. 😉 ]
The Tories currently being in power means we have the clearest view of what they actually think and how they plan to act. A particularly memorable event was when Theresa May abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change, sidelining the issues. This left them to be addressed by Andrea Leadsom, who was at the time unsure whether climate change is even real. The previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, didn’t have any problem scrapping a solar power incentives scheme just days after signing the COP21 agreement.
Putting recent history aside, the Conservative manifesto claims they will “meet [their] climate change commitments… as cheaply as possible”. In addition, they support having sources of “reliable, cheap and clean power”. In a political debate at the University of Bath broadcast on the Radio 4 Today Programme on 15th May, a Conservative representative argued the party seeks environmental rules and regulations “which fit us” post-Brexit. All seems pretty reasonable so far, albeit being focused on local rather than global aspects.
However, the Tories also plan to “halt the spread of onshore wind farms”, will “develop the shale industry in Britain” and will “continue to support the development of North Sea oil and gas”. It is now a well-established fact that wind power is the cheapest form of electricity generation available in the UK. Evidence also suggests that fracking (of shale gas) is a very risky activity indeed, with numerous environmental issues on local and global scales, affecting both public health and countryside beauty. Needless to say, oil is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.
So whilst the Conservatives claim to want to aim the trajectory of the UK towards a cleaner, safer and cheaper future, they are in fact promising exactly the opposite. At best, they will very slightly reduce the status quo emissions, but this is unlikely to be in line with their 2015 pledge to “push for a strong global climate deal later this year… that keeps [2°C]… firmly in reach”. In addition, the infamous ‘three Brexiteers’ are hardly examples of politicians who seek environmental justice. Tellingly, the Conservative manifesto starts with a section entitled ‘Five Great Problems’; none of these problems is climate change, or any related issue apparently…
I have previously written about nuclear power as a potential means of tackling the climate change problem, at least in theory. There I wrote about how there are various types of nuclear power generation, with some vastly cheaper, safer and more efficient than others. The “significant expansion in new nuclear” which the Conservatives promise in their manifesto is of an oudated, overly expensive and sub-optimally safe type, the leading case in point being Hinkley Point C. In my opinion, reactors of this type are not the answer to any of our problems and therefore conclude that the Tories are not looking particularly hopeful as far as this blog piece is aware.
Regardless of the manifesto promises, the government has changed its outlook on clean energy forms and gas, providing some hope that a Conservative victory wouldn’t mean a total climate disaster. The main criticism I have, however, is the total lack of any visible commitment this government has had to tackling the climate change problem in the past seven years.
Shade: Stale and Stinky mouldy brown bread
ARE LABOUR STUCK IN THE COAL MINING ERA?
It is more difficult to analyse the Labour party’s policies, since a government such as the hypothetical one run by Jeremy Corbyn isn’t something which has been seen in UK history. Corbyn has gained popularity mainly by appealing to young people, for whom climate change poses even more of a problem than older generations. As such, if he is to be successful, it is imperative that he address environmental issues, at least to a greater level than the Conservatives have done so far. In this way, the Labour manifesto states that “tackling climate change is an economic necessity and the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations”.
Additionally, Labour plans to set an ambitious “legal target to remove carbon from our electricity supply by 2030″. One way in which they would attempt to achieve this is through creating “a million additional green jobs” over the next decade, thereby also addressing the UK’s unemployment issues.
How Labour aims to reach the target is not quite crystal clear. Labour would “ban fracking because it would lock us into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels”, a sensible argument which is undeniably better than the hap-hazard implementation of the risky approach supported by the current government. Further, Labour recognises the inefficiency and instability of old fashioned nuclear reactors, with the “UK [having] the world’s oldest nuclear industry”. They insist newer-style nuclear must however remain part of the mix, highlighting the “considerable opportunities for nuclear power and decommissioning both internationally and domestically”.
Labour recognise the need to drive an environmental revolution via localising our energy resources. The manifesto rightly states that “a clean economy of the future is the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations…Renewable energy projects…can help create manufacturing and energy jobs”.
On the topic of airport expansion, Labour supports expansion of Heathrow airport, but promises to “balance the need for growth and the environmental impact”. Labour is, however, in support of the £40bn+ controversial HS2 rail project, which many, many people regard as an unnecessary vanity project. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has been made a great stand for tackling local air pollution since his election, and has a lot of ideas for tackling London’s horrendous NO2 issue.
I hope both that Khan manages to bring his ideas to fruition and that Labour’s many promising policies in this area are things which really would be put into practice by a Labour government.
Shade: Jeremy Corbyn’s prize marrow green
DO THE LIB DEMS REALLY CARE ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT?
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, caused much disruption on Wednesday’s BBC election debate. In the debate, he said
“If it is simply for hair shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers to solve climate change, it ain’t going to solve the problem. We’re all stuffed… we can make ourselves energy self-sufficient in renewable energy”.
Why exactly Farron decided to turn on Guardian readers, who are amongst the likeliest groups to vote for his party, is a mystery. That said, this statement does express the view of the Lib Dems that “climate change, one of the greatest challenges of our age, is by its nature global”, as it reads in their manifesto.
The Lib Dems’ zero carbon target is somewhat less ambitious (but arguably more realistic than) Labour’s. In their manifesto, they claim they would “pass a Zero Carbon Britain Act… to bring net… emissions to zero by 2050.” In addition, they propose to set an “indicative target” for 2030, by which 60% of UK electricity should be obtained from renewable sources. In my opinion it is unlikely that, even if such pledges were met, emission levels would be reduced in sufficient time. Perhaps the sense of urgency Farron purveyed in the TV debate should be better reflected in environmental policy.
Like Labour and the Conservatives, the Lib Dems accept that “new nuclear power stations can play a role in electricity supply” with the proviso that “concerns about safety, disposal of waste and cost are adequately addressed”. Further, they support an increase in research and development for tidal, CCS, storage and “ultra-low emission vehicles”, each of which hold enormous potential. Providing somewhat of a cocktail of electricity generation techniques, the manifesto proposes to “use biomass primarily for heating and small-scale power generation”.
Of course, the Lib Dem’s campaign in the run-up to this general election has been greatly focused on their firm belief that the UK should remain within the European Union, despite the referendum result, which gave support to the opposite. They claim that “[i]f the UK were to leave the EU… our voice would not be heard in climate change negotiations”. As such, the Liberal Democrats throw the environment in as another bargaining chip in the Brexit debate.
Shade: Guardian reader’s avocado toast green
DO NATIONALISTS CARE FOR THEIR COUNTRYSIDES?
It seems the UK Independence Party has achieved its sole purpose of driving the country out of the EU (with very little real accountability). Shortly after Nigel Farage proclaimed 24th May “Independence Day”,*** UKIP supported May’s scrapping of the Department for Energy and Climate Change.
In a statement of further dislike for top-down action on climate change, their manifesto reads, “The Climate Change Act is doing untold damage. UKIP will repeal it.”. Further UKIP would “withdraw taxpayer and consumer subsidies for new wind turbines and solar photovoltaic arrays” and claims that, for cheap energy security, “coal must be part of the solution”.
I hope that I do not need to summarise how dangerous such an approach to the environment could be, and leave UKIP to summarise itself: according to their 2015 manifesto it is
“time to get fracking”.
Shade: “£350m for the NHS” Vote Leave bus red
As an English citizen, the environmental policies of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Crymu or Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland are not things I have looked into in great detail and so I will only discuss them briefly here.
In contrast to the UK government’s current approach, the SNP and Plaid Crymu would “continue to support a moratorium on fracking” and “continue to oppose opencase mining”, respectively. Plaid Crymu also continues “to oppose the building of nuclear power plants in new locations” and “will not support the creation of a major new UK airport to the east of London”.
Whilst the SNP seeks “to maximise support for offshore wind… [and] press for onshore wind to continue to receive support”, they also continue to support investment in the oil and gas industries, mainly due to job protection. Plaid Crymu makes an appeal in their manifesto to recognise “the impacts of climate change upon poverty”, something which is rarely brought up by the other parties.
Pivoting to their respective countries, the SNP “will call on… the UK… to adopt Scotland’s ambitious carbon reduction targets”, whilst Plaid Crymu seeks to improve public transport in order to “reduce carbon emissions and safeguard Wales against future fuel shortages”.
It seems climate change is not on the agenda of the DUP, with very little mention being made in their public statements and documentation.
Shade: mixed paint, with some separation of layers
ARE THE GREENS THE GREENEST?
The Green Party’s raison d’être is to speak up for environmental issues. As such, one would hope that they provide an excellent, well thought out and considerate approach to action on climate change. Indeed, they state “climate change is the greatest challenge of our time” and claim that “only the Greens are determined to tackle it”.
Like Labour, the Greens hold an ambitious zero carbon target, with the belief that the UK should reduce emissions to 10% of 1990 levels by 2030. Further, the manifesto insists all coal-fired power stations should be closed “by 2023 at the very latest”.
I have previously written about how energy sources such as nuclear power are neglected in the environmental movement and that tribalism directs attention more towards renewables, which do themselves hold carbon costs and have other associated ethical issues. The Greens “oppose nuclear power… [which] poses unacceptable risks”. However, the party supports the potential use of CCS on existing gas and biomass plants, but “only as a transitional technology”. To me, this seems a sensible, cost-effective approach. I agree most with the Greens in the sense that rather than putting too much emphasis on the mode of electricity generation,
“Renewables can supply all the energy we need… if we manage our demand”.
As such, it is cutting the need which has the greatest importance – an approach very much in-tune with this blog.
The list of policies towards action on climate change (expectedly) goes on for the Greens, including the provision of cheaper public transport, encouragement of walking, cycling and electric vehicles and research, promotion and support of “farming methods that reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.
Shade: Green Party logo green
As far as this analysis is concerned, the Green Party provides the clear best approach to tackling the problem of climate change, in terms of ambition, effectiveness of approach and cost-efficiency. Of course, neither is climate change the only thing on the voter’s mind, nor is a vote for the Green Party necessarily going to help their approach to the environment become adopted on a country-wide scale. This is especially true now that Corbyn has rejected the possibility of any (official) sort of progressive alliance.
As promised, I have tried to keep the analysis centred upon the policies and approaches of the political parties, meaning the above sections do not take into account the other policies, such as on education, the NHS or on national security. Instead of looking to my own personal views for a conclusion, I will instead look to the polls and seat predictions. By multiplying the numerical green scale value by the average poll over the past three weeks, or by the forecast vote share, we may determine an evidence-based assessment not just of how to make a green vote, but how to make it count. Due to the first past the post system, some parties receive much more support than their seat numbers account for. Included in the table is the number of votes per seat in 2015, along with an associated scale factor for the seatscore. This amplifies the impact of UKIP, for example, who won just one seat but has an enormous effect on national politics and attitudes. The seat scalar is approximately the factor of votes more than the Conservatives required per seat.
The 11 greenscale values range from -10 to 10, with -10 being reddest and 10 being greenest. The poll ranges as of 3rd June, green scale ratings and consequent rating are tabulated below.
Conservatives Labour Liberal Democrats UKIP Green
Poll average 44% 35% 8% 4% 2%
Seat estimate 359 220 7 1 1
Green scale 0.5 7 6 -1.5 10
Pollscore 0.22 2.45 0.48 -0.06 0.2
Votes / seat 34,244 40,290 301,986 3,881,129 1,157,613
Seat scalar 1 1 10 100 50
Seatscore 0.28 2.43 0.66 -0.23 0.79
Overall 0.25 2.44 0.57 -0.15 0.50
Take from this analysis what you will, and please let me know if you think I could measure how far your vote will go towards action on climate change using a better metric. The following table summarises the findings of this article.
Pure greenscale rank Weighted rank
- Green Labour
- Labour Lib Dem
- Lib Dem Green
- Conservative Conservative
- UKIP UKIP
The former column is the idealist, non-tactical-voting recommended order of preference, while the latter is the tactical-voter’s recommendation. Happy voting!
* : In the latest edition of this series, Shah has now reconfirmed her faith in Labour, saying they have “proved themselves”.
** : For a full table of my numerical ratings, see this table. For the main source of much of my research, see Carbon Brief’s handy manifesto evaluation. For polices which are unmentioned, I referred to the 2015 evaluation, amongst other sources.
*** : The claim that the UK could have a so-called independence day is frankly disgusting. Take a look at this map of countries who have gained independence from the UK.