This article titled “Would a Labour or Tory government be better for the environment?” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd March 2015 07.00 UTC
After five years of a government that aspired to being the greenest ever, what can we expect from the next parliament?
Here’s how the two big parties stand on some of the key upcoming environmental issues, from crunch UN climate negotiations and how and whether the UK should frack, to what to do about the country’s energy inefficient homes and whether the government should keep killing badgers.
David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have signed a cross-party pledge on climate action, but the issue is still approached differently by the parties.
Labour leader Miliband has been forthright in placing climate change on the party’s agenda. In an op-ed in the Observer last week, he said climate change was a key economic issue for the UK and attacked Tory MPs who he said “flirt with climate change denial”.
Miliband’s shadow energy and climate change minister Jonathan Reynolds told an audience in London last week: “I look at the Conservative party front bench and I do not see anyone coming through who takes this agenda seriously, who wants to develop ideas on it … To me, the Conservative party, having had that phase where it looked like it was going to embrace this agenda, has fundamentally moved away from it and that is a great shame indeed.”
But Greg Barker, Cameron’s climate envoy who was also on the panel, disagreed: “There are lots of green Tories.”
When pressed for names Barker was able to cite just one example – Matt Hancock a minister for business, enterprise and energy – before saying:
“The most important green Tory is David Cameron and he has consistently been my greatest ally in government.”
But Cameron’s rhetoric on climate change has been undermined by his elevation of prominent climate sceptics to influential positions within the government’s environmental departments. The nadir was the much-lambasted and summarily-ended tenure of Owen Paterson as environment secretary, who has called climate science “consistently and widely exaggerated”. Michael Fallon who was a minister for climate change has also questioned climate science. These appointments represent an undercurrent of scepticism in the Conservative party. Last year a poll found just 30% of Tory MPs accepted it was “now an established scientific fact that climate change is largely man-made”.
The election will also decide who represents the UK at the defining climate conference in Paris this December. Labour has employed former deputy PM John Prescott, who led the UK’s delegation on the Kyoto protocol, and it can be expected that he would take a lead role in any negotiations. Liberal Democrat secretary of energy and climate change Ed Davey, who has been the UK’s lead in climate talks, will need a hung parliament and a new coalition deal to see the job through to Paris. Should the Tories win government outright, Barker, may retain an active role despite his imminent retirement from politics.
More contentious than the need for action, will be the question of how Britain achieves decarbonisation. In order to chart a way to its goal of 80% emissions reductions from 1990 levels by 2050, the UK has defined how much carbon it can burn in five yearly periods from 2008 until 2028. These are known as the carbon budgets.
In December 2015, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) will advise on Britain’s emissions reductions between 2028 and 2032 – the fifth carbon budget. Under the law, the sitting government must accept this advice and implement policies to achieve the reductions.
All parties agree unabated coal power must be eradicated and have committed to phasing it out – although any new parliament will not have to do much to make this happen as anti-pollution laws and carbon pricing will see all stations closed by 2027.
Chairman of the CCC John Gummer says, with coal heading for oblivion by the time its term begins, the fifth carbon budget will be the toughest to legislate. “Whoever is in power, there will be tough discussion about how we do that because the fifth carbon budget is going to be very difficult indeed in the sense that we’ll have picked off a lot of the low hanging fruit.”
Clean energy: onshore wind and nuclear
Labour and the Conservatives largely agree that Britain’s low-carbon future involves a broad suite of energy sources, including renewable technologies, nuclear and potentially domestic shale gas. But how much of each and their enthusiasm for certain technologies varies significantly.
“No doubt there is greater appetite for the nuclear component and a lesser appetite for onshore wind among Conservatives and a smaller appetite for the nuclear component in the Labour party,” says Gummer.
The Tories are openly hostile to onshore wind and various MPs have fanned the flames of public nimbyism by calling it a “blight” on landscapes and consistently rejecting planning applications. If it wins in May, the party has committed to cutting subsidies to the sector – Britain’s largest source of renewable energy – a move renewables groups say would “kill the industry dead”. This is despite onshore wind’s increasing affordability, reflected in the prices offered in Thursday’s government auction for new project contracts.
Jim Watson, research director of the UK Energy Research Centre, says the Tories’ opposition to certain forms of renewables runs counter to the interests of taxpayers. “If we want to reduce the costs of meeting our climate targets we ought to be enabling the lower cost technologies to come through and be built to save people money. It seems odd to me that a politician of whatever party would want to stand in the way of a technology that lowers the cost of meeting our climate targets for consumers.”
Financial support for the £25bn nuclear behemoth at Hinkley Point C, which was born of a pro-nuclear policy under the last Labour government, was announced by the current administration in 2013. This is a key plank of the Conservative’s decarbonisation plan and the defining infrastructure announcement of Davey’s term as energy and climate change secretary. But it looks likely to be delayed by shareholder setbacks and legal challenges to its generous subsidy regime.
Labour has offered its support for the Hinkley project.
“It will be interesting how much [Labour] pursue a pro-renewables versus a pro-all-of-the-above strategy,” says Green Alliance’s head of politics Alastair Harper.
Miliband has expressed tentative support for onshore wind. But Harper says the issue could be politically divisive.
“Are they going to go all out and say onshore wind has a real future in the UK if you vote for us? They haven’t quite done that yet and it’d be an interesting binary moment for them to go for.”
By the time the fifth carbon budget is announced in December, says Gummer, whichever party (or parties) is in government may have had the argument settled for them. “The price of renewables is falling much more sharply than even the most optimistic would have said and the situation of nuclear is of course still not certain with the delay on the next stage of Hinkley [Point C nuclear power station]”.
The issue of shale gas exploration, or fracking, will be another key decision during the planning of the fifth carbon budget, says Watson.
“How much gas we can burn in the context of our targets and what is the role of shale gas within that will certainly come up, for whatever government is in power,” he says.
Both the Conservatives and Labour have expressed enthusiasm for fracking and claim credit for creating a safe, attractive legal platform for the industry – although there is a distinct difference in their approach. The Tories have aggressively pursued an agenda that removes regulatory hurdles. Some of which Labour has opposed, including fracking beneath national parks and beside aquifers.
“You’re really talking about difference of emphasis,” says Watson. “But there really isn’t a clear difference of one party is really for it and one party is really against it. I just detect a more cautious approach from Labour. There isn’t the same sort of rhetoric that there is from some government ministers.”
Watson says some less-straightforward electoral outcomes could influence the politics of fracking during the next term. Scotland has implemented a moratorium on fracking. Watson raises the possibility that a Labour-Scottish National party coalition (a possibility being hawked by the Tories) may have a more adversarial attitude towards shale gas.
The Welsh government is investigating its legal options to implement such a ban. The national Labour party has committed to devolving powers to Wales to allow them to ban fracking.
Badgers and foxes are perhaps the only environmental issues where daylight exists between the Tories and Labour. Should the Conservatives win in May, they will allow a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act, which bans hunting with dogs. They will also continue and expand the badger cull. Labour stands opposed to both these policies.
There is massive public opposition to both the badger cull (42% against, 36% for) and fox hunting (80% against). So why are the Tories swimming against the flow? These debates hark back to the days before the UK’s politics became a bland amble to the centre. They are based on ancient rivalries between the country and the city, a small group of landowning toffs versus the renting class.
But most importantly, they are politically irrelevant. “It’s very easy for the parties to hold those different positions because they speak to different audiences that don’t really cross over … It’s very easy to get off the fence both ways,” says Harper. Few people will decide their vote on animal welfare issues. The Tories might grab a few votes from Ukip in rural areas and Labour from the Greens, but the floating centre has more pressing concerns.
The coalition government’s flagship energy efficiency scheme, the green deal, has become a traumatic experience for its architects. Despite recent successes in some aspects of the grants-for-home-improvements scheme, the overall take-up has been disappointing. This has left the UK’s desperately needed drive for household energy efficiency languishing.
The Conservatives are yet to outline exactly how they will approach this tainted issue in the next parliament. Harper suggests it is a case of once bitten, twice shy.
“I think the Tories feel burnt by the green deal and they haven’t really come up with how they’d deal with it. I’d be interested to see what’s in the manifesto on that. At the moment it just feels like they are still amazed that it didn’t work,” he says.
Labour on the other hand, smelling electoral blood in the water, has pre-emptively announced an interest-free loan scheme that will replace the green deal grants. As part of a five-part efficiency strategy, Labour says the loans will improve up to one million homes during the next parliament. But the Green Building Council has warned that Labour may have to further sweeten the deal in order to motivate homeowners.
Nature is the thorn in the free market’s side, that pesky “externality” that the UK’s major parties don’t really know what to do about. So on the whole, they ignore it.
“The thing that is absent from the narrative of both parties right now is a real vision for what they are going to do about nature. And how we’re going to stop the losing battle of our habitats and our local environment getting worse and worse with every passing year and for the last 50 years,” says Harper.
“That conversation, that ambition hasn’t really been owned by either of the main parties. Their manifestos will have to address it in some way and I think what you’ll see is a lot of the big natural environment organisations, like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts and so on, will be pushing for … clear legislative plans to restore nature at a national level.”
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