The UK website Carbon Brief, which analysed government and industry data, found that 335 terawatt-hours were generated by power plants last year, down by about 1% on the year before. Since 2005 the level has fallen by 16% – or the equivalent of two and a half Hinkley Point C nuclear power stations.
Simon Evans, policy editor at the group, said: “It could be a combination of more efficient appliances, energy-saving lightbulbs and, more recently, LEDs. Then there’s supermarkets installing better fridges, industry using more efficient pumps. Across all of those businesses, efficiency will have been going up. And of course there’s the changing nature of industry in the UK.”
The financial crisis could also have played a role in making homes and businesses more careful with their energy use, he added.
While generation fell almost every year between 2008 and 2014, it remained stable between 2015 and 2017, before resuming its downward march in 2018.
Continuing to use energy more efficiently would help the UK reach its binding climate goals, Evans said. “Using less as an end in itself isn’t the point. But it is the case that meeting carbon targets is made easier if we use energy efficiently.”
Separate data from the National Grid showed that 2018 was the greenest year to date for electricity generation as more power is sourced from renewable sources and less from coal. The carbon intensity from electricity generation was down 6.8% last year and has more than halved since 2013.
The analysis by Carbon Brief found that renewable sources including biomass, hydro, solar and wind power supplied a record 33% of electricity this year, up from 29% last year. Renewables were just 6.7% of the mix in 2009.
Green energy was boosted primarily by new windfarms connecting to the grid, as well as new biomass plants, which included the conversion of a coal unit at Drax power station in north Yorkshire and the conversion of a former coal plant at Lynemouth, Northumberland.
Among retailers and manufacturers, they talk of “the Blue Planet effect”. The BBC series, screened late last year, was the moment that many of us realised the catastrophic impact our use of plastics was having on the world’s oceans. Scenes such as a hawksbill turtle snagged in a plastic sack, the albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic or the mother pilot whale grieving for her dead calf, which may have been poisoned by her contaminated milk, are impossible to unsee.
It’s a crisis that affects us all, and the facts make for dispiriting reading. If nothing changes, one study suggests that by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic swimming around, by weight, than fish. It’s already estimated that one third of fish caught in the Channel contain plastic; another piece of research found that “top European shellfish consumers” could potentially consume up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year.
Suddenly our use of plastics is firmly on the political and cultural agenda. While impassioned individuals have been pushing to reduce our use of plastics for a few years, the volume of the debate has been turned up dramatically in recent months.
There is hope, too, that the message is getting across. The 5p charge on carrier bags, introduced in 2015, has led to an 85% drop in their use across England; an astonishing 9bn bags. Here, we highlight pioneers who are tackling the issue of plastics in creative ways.
Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker: ‘Imagine a lemon-flavour straw and a grapefruit cup or a vanilla straw for your iced latte’
Across the US, around 500m plastic straws are used and discarded every single day. “We could fill 125 school buses,” says Leigh Ann Tucker, co-founder of Loliware. The straws are made from polypropylene, a petroleum by-product, which is technically recyclable in large formats, but this is practically impossible with something the size of a straw. “So they end up as landfill or ocean pollutants,” Chelsea Briganti, Loliware’s other half, chips in. “We’re drowning in our plastic.”
Britain sucks, too. Here, we throw away an estimated 8.5bn straws annually, easily the most in Europe. In London alone, more straws are used than the whole of Italy. Most campaigns focus on getting rid of plastic straws or using longer-lasting or biodegradable alternatives and these have had considerable traction – now the UK government has announced a consultation on banning plastic straws.
However, Briganti and Tucker have a more playful solution. This summer in the US, and next year in the UK, they are launching the Lolistraw, a straw that you can drink from and then eat – they call it “biodegr(edible)”.
The main ingredient is seaweed, which can have different flavours or nutrients added. The material can also be fashioned into cups and lids, all of which can be munched on after you’ve finished drinking.
“Imagine a lemon straw with a blood orange lid and a grapefruit cup,” says Briganti, in a call from Beacon, New York, where Loliware has its offices in an old silk factory. “Or a flavoured vanilla straw for your iced latte. There’s an inherent idea that there needs to be a trade-off, but actually we can offer something more exciting. We want to invigorate the discussion of ‘What does sustainability mean now? And how does that benefit me?’, rather than asking people to compromise as a consumer.”
The neologisms do not end there: Loliware has also created a designation called “hypercompostable”. “We wanted to distinguish ourselves from industrial compostable materials such as PLA [polylactic acid] plastic, which is often made from GM corn, because we wanted to show people what real compostability means,” explains Briganti. “If this cup or straw ends up in a waterway, it’ll simply dissolve; if it ends up in the natural environment, it will break down in 60 days.” PLA, meanwhile, though technically biodegradable, can take a long time to decompose (anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years in a landfill) and also needs to be kept separate when it’s recycled because it can contaminate the recycling stream.
Loliware launched in March 2015, but Briganti and Tucker had been working together since they’d met a few years earlier at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Their first product was an edible cup and it immediately caused a stir. In October 2015, Loliware pitched on Shark Tank – the US version of Dragons’ Den – and there was a “shark brawl” as all of the entrepreneurs tore strips off each other to invest.
The original cup proved popular – deals were sealed with the Four Seasons hotel group, 60,000 were bought by Absolut and so on – but at nearly a unit, it was too expensive for mainstream penetration.
That has changed with a new material they call Lolizero, which is “cost-competitive” with paper and PLA. Loliware is currently in discussion with global chains in the coffee and fast-food sectors, as well as more upmarket chains, about using its cups, lids and straws. “Just to give you an idea,” says Tucker. “One big account, replacing 10% of their straws, is so significant it’s in the hundreds of millions.”
Briganti and Tucker are confident their products will make a big dent in the single-use drinks market – and they’re especially proud to have made an impact as a pair of female innovators.
“Women solving the challenges for Mother Earth, if you will,” Briganti says with a laugh. “We have a direct connection with her.”
Vin and Omi: ‘People ask “Is this silk?” No, it’s 11 small Evian bottles’
The eco fashion designers Vin and Omi are tricky men to pin down. They don’t like to use their real names. They are vague about their ages and where they live, though it’s usually either London or New York. It’s not impossible to find photos of them, but they often wear masks or, as was the case at end of one catwalk show, cardboard boxes with holes hastily punched for their eyes. “The Daily Mail called us the Banksys of fashion,” says Omi with a giggle, the slighter of the pair and originally from Singapore, when we meet at the Andaz hotel in east London.
Perhaps inevitably, the pair dislike the tag “fashion designers” too, though they concede this objection is getting harder to sustain now they have shown their clothes a dozen times at London fashion week. They also have enough celebrity admirers to fill Grazia many times over: Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus have all worn Vin + Omi. Walking in their shows they’ve had rappers, Jane Horrocks, the boxer Nicola Adams and “someone from Made in Chelsea”.
But what’s certainly true is that Vin and Omi do not really fit in the fashion world. In an industry famed for waste, excess and ethically dubious practices, they try to do things the right way. They started in 2004, working with latex – “really organic and sustainable!” says Omi – and a doomed attempt to make it breathable. This led them on to plastics and a quest to make beautiful, tactile garments from recycled materials.
“We’re on the cover of Recycling & Waste World soon,” mock-boasts Vin, who has a background as a sculptor and in public art projects.
“It’s brilliant,” adds Omi; away from work, the pair have been married for 17 years. “Instead of Vogue, we get Waste World.”
And yet perhaps the day when they appear in both those market‑leading publications isn’t too far away. Scattered around the hotel room are a selection of clothes, made from 12 fabrics unique to Vin + Omi. They are vibrant and outlandish, some are plain bizarre, but what’s really surprising is how enjoyable they are to hold. Most are made from recycled and often salvaged plastics, but there’s also a no-kill fleece and a “leather-esque” vest made from chestnut skins.
“When the first T-shirt made from plastic came back we were amazed – it was softer than a normal cotton T-shirt by far,” says Vin. “That had to come from Canada, which was a shame, but people would ask, ‘Is this silk?’ And we’d say, ‘No, it’s 11 small plastic Evian bottles.’”
Perhaps their biggest champion is Debbie Harry. Last year, they created the wardrobe for Blondie’s world tour: 12 pieces all made from recycled or salvaged plastic included blouses, capes and an especially eye-catching smock inscribed with “Stop Fucking the Planet” in block capitals. “Debbie said, ‘Just design me anything,’” recalls Vin. “And we said, ‘Are you sure? Right, it’s going to be Stop Fucking the Planet and you’re wearing it.’ And she did.”
Vin and Omi certainly enjoy a mischievous stunt. They are currently collecting Coca-Cola bottles. The beverage giant sells more than 110bn single-use plastic bottles every year according to Greenpeace, and has promised to collect and recycle the equivalent of all its packaging by 2030, but has been lambasted by the environmental group for not setting a target on reducing the amount of plastic it production. When they have enough bottles, Vin and Omi will create a lavish garment and hand-deliver it to Coca-Cola’s CEO. Omi smiles, “The note will say, ‘Look, we can help bring your quota down. You can use this for your marketing.’”
Until now, Vin and Omi have concentrated on one-off, high-fashion pieces, but in the next year or so, they would like to open a shop in London selling more affordable designs. They also hope that more established labels will start to follow their path. “Eventually, plastic will be banned,” predicts Vin, “but in the interim period, if all designers did what we were doing on a larger scale, there would be no plastic in the ocean. They would pay to have salvage operations, because they’d get free raw material. It’s a lot of planning, but it’s worth it.”
Rodrigo García González and Pierre-Yves Paslier: ‘Corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to try something else’
When people hear the concept for Ooho!, they often assume it’s a joke. Much like the notion of food pills, the idea of water delivered in a transparent membrane you swallow whole seems too futuristic for 2018. “When we started crowdfunding, people called us fake news,” says Pierre-Yves Paslier, the 30-year-old French co-founder of Skipping Rocks Lab, the east London-based startup that makes Ooho!. “They couldn’t believe it was a real thing.”
“We had to organise events for investors,” adds 33-year-old co-founder, Rodrigo García González, a Spaniard, “so they could touch it, taste it and see it was real.”
I can confirm that Ooho! very much exists, but there is definitely something bizarre about popping the little pouches in your mouth. First, you explode it in your cheek and get a pleasant rush of filtered water. Then you decide what to do with the membrane, which is made from seaweed – you can spit it out – it is biodegradable in four to six weeks – or you can chew it. “It has a bit of texture, it doesn’t really have a specific taste,” explains Paslier. “It’s a texture found a lot in south-east Asian food, but we are not very familiar with it in the west.”
García González and Paslier met while studying for a masters in innovation design engineering, offered jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. The idea for Ooho!, says García González, was borrowed from the natural world: “In nature, to contain liquids, such as fruits or eggs, they normally use membranes. It’s the most efficient way to contain any type of liquid, because you need the minimum amount of material.” This led them on to spherification, a process invented in the 1950s that was then used to make fake caviar and had a revival in 2003 at Ferran Adrià’s modernist restaurant, elBulli. Since their discovery, Skipping Rocks Lab has been working out how to refine and package its offering.
There is obviously a market to disrupt here. It’s estimated that 1m plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world. García González and Paslier cheerfully accept that it would be better if everyone carried reusable bottles and there were plenty of water fountains. However, until that’s the case, they believe Ooho! can fill a gap at music festivals, running events, offices and takeaway lunch spots. Ultimately, sachets will be delivered by an on-site dispenser like a coffee machine. These should start rolling out later in the year.
Skipping Rocks Lab believes its technology could be adapted to face other challenges such as disposable cutlery or coffee cups. And its experience of crowdfunding suggests that there is public demand. Recently, it set out to raise £400,000 via Crowdcube; in the event, 900 investors pledged almost £850,000. “People are ready for an alternative,” says Paslier. “The corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to switch to something else.”
It might seem surprising that a European-led company would choose Brexit Britain as a base, but García González and Paslier insist they are happy here. They have received strong support from Imperial College and Innovate UK and have a close relationship with other startups such as Aeropowder, which creates new materials from waste feathers. “It’s still really great to be here,” says Paslier. “The clean-tech sector is booming.”
Siân Sutherland:‘What we’re asking for is difficult, but we have to turn off the plastic tap’
“I’m probably your least likely eco-warrior,” says Siân Sutherland, a 56-year-old British entrepreneur and co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet. I have an idea what she means – she has glitter on her jacket and bag and her blond hair is flecked with blue – but I ask her to clarify. “There’s a bit of a mould isn’t there, where you think, ‘She’s a right old activist.’ You know, knitted armpits, sandals. But there’s a whole new wave now – it doesn’t have to define your look.”
For most of her life, Sutherland had given little thought to the environment. In her 20s, she opened and ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in Soho; she has also set up a design and branding agency and founded a skincare brand for pregnant women. “I did that for 10 years in the UK and the US, so you can imagine that my personal plastic footprint is huge,” she says. “It’s a very competitive space and I didn’t really think about what happens to those white plastic bottles afterwards.”
A Plastic Planet was born when she was asked by an old friend, Frederikke Magnussen, to help with the launch of a documentary, A Plastic Ocean. This was 2016 and, says Sutherland, you had to “strong-arm” anyone to take any interest in the subject. But she and Magnussen quickly realised that this was a problem that went far beyond the oceans and started their campaign.
“You go to your supermarket and it’s a sea of plastic and you have no choice,” says Sutherland. “It’s almost like this human right has been taken from us. So this is really about two unreasonable women saying, ‘Why can it be that we’re now made to feel bad about our shopping habits and we have no choice?’”
Right now, A Plastic Planet has a very straightforward goal: a plastic-free aisle in every supermarket. It focuses on this area because this is where Sutherland and Magnussen believe they can make the greatest difference. In Europe in 2016, 40% of all plastic was used for packaging, and nearly half of that wrapped food and drink. Earlier this year, a Guardian investigation estimated that British supermarkets were responsible for more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year; that’s enough to bury Greater London 2.5cm deep.
“It’s indefensible for us to use something that is so indestructible as plastic, which we now know is going to exist on the planet for centuries, to just wrap our perishable food and drink in,” Sutherland seethes. “It makes no sense. We just got it wrong.”
A Plastic Planet’s campaign has already made global headlines. The world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle opened in February in Amsterdam. Ekoplaza, a Dutch chain, had around 700 products at its pilot launch and everything was packaged, just in glass, metal, cardboard or a compostable, plant-based biofilm.
“We really had no idea it would be the media storm that it was,” says Sutherland. “Personally I did 55 interviews in 24 hours. But the story is not: the people of Amsterdam can buy plastic-free; this is a message to the world that we don’t need to wait five years. We don’t need to wait 25 years definitely. I’ll be dead. Half the planet will be dead. We can do it now.”
In the UK, Sutherland has not yet spoken to Theresa May or Michael Gove, the environment secretary, though she offers them both an open invitation. But she has had discussions with the firm Iceland, which has committed to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products by 2023, and also the Co-op, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer: “I love the fact that this is not an affordability issue and it can’t be.” A Plastic Planet also receives inquiries from around the world – recently Portugal, Korea and China. “China will save the world in my opinion,” she says.
Sutherland does not lecture individuals – “I’m no plastic saint” – but she thinks the main thing we can do is support any supermarket with a plastics-reduction scheme.
“The quicker they do this, we the public have to make it a success,” she says. “Because I know what we’re asking for is difficult; it is inconvenient, it might have a cost implication. But it’s essential. We can’t hide behind words like ‘recycling’ any more. They are not the solution. We have to turn off the plastic tap.”
Bex Band and Erin Bastian: ‘Every change that’s happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance’
For the inaugural Paddle Pickup last year a group of women kayaked from Bristol to London. They covered 300km in 15 days, negotiated 151 canal locks and collected 3,240 pieces of plastic pollution. “We pulled out all sorts of weird stuff,” says 29-year-old adventurer Bex Band, who came up with the idea along with Erin Bastian, also 29. “We found a Santa Claus, chairs, bikes, a rubber duck, Viagra. A bag of class A drugs … ”
What did she do with those? “I disposed of the contents and took the plastic away,” Band laughs. “And I thought: ‘Maybe that’s not the right thing to do. Maybe the fish wouldn’t appreciate that.’”
Band first made contact with Bastian, a sea kayak guide and founder of Evoke Adventure, after seeing her website: “We’re both in the adventure scene and it’s quite a small scene,” says Band. The idea for Paddle Pickup came up in that first conversation and two months later they were on the water. The trip was great fun, but their main takeaway was the realisation of just how dirty Britain’s waterways have become. “I had a day in Reading where it was so bad we weren’t even scraping the surface,” says Bastian. “And you can’t help thinking, ‘What difference are we actually making? It’s not even 1% of the plastic that’s there.’”
“It’s a constant battle, where I’m trying to fight this hopelessness,” adds Band. “But if we don’t have hope, we have nothing. People say ‘What’s the point?’ But every change that’s ever happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance.”
So, undeterred, Paddle Pickup returns at the end of May and this time they are kayaking from one end of Wales to the other, via the river Severn, again collecting plastic as they go. This trip is 240km, and it’s divided into three, five-day sections. A few places are still available; no previous kayaking experience required.
Why just women? “A lot of women struggle to get involved in adventure because it’s such a competitive and masculine environment and they’re lacking in confidence,” says Band, whose company Love Her Wild specialises in all-female expeditions. “So by making it all women, it breaks down that barrier.”
If last time is anything to go by, the trip will be hard but rewarding. And it might just be the start of something: one woman from the 2017 Paddle Pickup is now cycling around New Zealand, speaking in schools about plastic pollution; another is rowing across the Pacific Ocean. “It’s a ripple effect,” says Bastian. “You go on one adventure and then you’re like: ‘Now I can think bigger.’”
Band and Bastian hope they can inspire informal Paddle Pickups all over the country – and that, as word spreads, change will follow. Band says: “My favourite message from the last trip was one guy who said that he’d read about us in the local paper. He went to buy his lunch that morning as usual and he didn’t buy a water bottle, he used a reusable one. And he said he wasn’t going to buy a [disposable] water bottle again. That’s amazing: we can take away the plastic, but that doesn’t solve the long-term problem. We need people to change their habits.”
Shale gas exploration can be environmentally sound, and should be the centrepiece of the next government’s energy policy, the Conservative’s most senior green-leaning MP has urged.
Tim Yeo, the Tory former minister, and chairman of parliament’s energy and climate committee, said the time had come to make the “green” case in favour of fracking, and that the incoming government after the general election must seize on the technology for the good of the UK’s environment and economy.
“There is an opportunity now, and it might not exist in a few years [when other European countries have developed fracking],” he told the Guardian. “People who think fracking is an environmental problem are mistaken.”
He said that the regulations governing fracking in this country were sound, and that related problems such as tremors were very small, and there would be no danger to the water supply here, as there has been in some places in the US. “Once people see that horizontal drilling is not causing earthquakes or poisoning the water they will be satisfied,” he said.
While warning that shale gas would not be the “transformational” industry it has been in the US, where the widespread exploitation of fracking technology has sent gas and oil prices tumbling, Yeo said it would be cheaper for the UK and have less impact on the climate than importing gas.
At the general election, Yeo will leave parliament after 32 years, having been de-selected by his constituency party, apparently for spending more time on national than local issues. A former environment minister and shadow environment secretary, he is one of the longest-standing and most influential champions of green issues among the ranks of Tory MPs, and chairs the influential parliamentary cross-party select committee on energy and climate change.
He makes his last major speech on energy and the environment on Thursday, at a conference that will highlight some of the committee’s progress on making policy recommendations in the current parliament.
He has chosen to make the green case for shale gas as his parting shot, because he believes the coalition has been too timid in persuading the public of the value of shale. Yeo has no current financial interest in shale and does not intend to take up any such interests on leaving parliament.
Yeo said that reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions would still leave the country reliant on gas for years to come, and that fulfilling heating and power needs using domestic sources of gas would be both lower in emissions and cheaper than importing liquefied natural gas from overseas.
“I yield to no one in my desire to [tackle climate change] but the fact is we will not get by without consuming a lot of gas between now and the 2030s, so better to have a domestic source than to import it,” he said. “I do not think that a single extra cubic metre of gas will be consumed in the UK because of a domestic fracking industry.”
He said many green groups were opposing fracking because of a “visceral reaction to anything involving fossil fuels”, but he said the UK could meet its commitments on carbon reduction while producing gas from shale.
He will tell the conference: “The next government must stand up to the fuzzy-headed ideological fringes that oppose fracking. The greens opposed to fracking do not have evidence on their side.”
He will add: “Too many of us take the ready availability of energy, and the prosperity it makes possible, for granted. We expect electricity and gas to be constantly available – but we won’t accept the energy infrastructure on which that availability depends.”
The Lib Dems on Friday proposed changes to the upcoming plastic bag charge that they claim will remove an extra 3.5bn plastic bags and 328m papers bags from circulation each year, and save small businesses £300m annually. Plastic bag use has risen for four years running, with 8.3bn given out in 2013.
Clegg said: “The facts are simple; single use bags blight our towns and countryside, they trap and suffocate wildlife, and plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade.
“The countdown to charging has begun, and by the time it arrives this autumn, reusable bags should increasingly be commonplace. As we get used to it, the hundreds of millions raised from the charge will go to charities.
“But we need to do much more. We need to go further and faster.”
The business community was supportive of the move.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said: “The BRC has always maintained that the charge should apply to all retailers and all bags. It makes sense to improve on the current proposal now rather than waiting until the next parliament. The proposal as it stands is confusing and will not send a clear message to shoppers.”
John Allan, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: “The FSB supports the introduction of charges for plastic bags. Many small retailers believe this measure could be good for business, good for the environment and good for their customers and community. However, we agree with the widely held industry view that imposing complex reporting requirements on smaller businesses is overly-burdensome and unnecessary.”
“There will still be an awful lot of bags in circulation, even with the 5p charge. Some of them will get into the environment,” said Stephen. He said the exemption would ensure that more of these bags were biodegradable.
Clegg said he was proud of the Lib Dem’s part in David Cameron’s “greenest government ever”.
“At the beginning of this coalition government we made ambitious promises. Four years on I’m proud to say that we’ve made real changes. From planting new trees, to boosting green travel options in their cities, the powerful steps we’ve taken will conserve our environment now and for years to come.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”