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Cross-party pledges mask deep divisions on climate policy ahead of the general election

With less than 8 weeks until the drama of the next UK parliamentary election culminates, Olaf Corry asks what role will climate change play.

Olaf Corry
2 April 2015
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As both the UK election campaign and the global climate hot up, it is worth asking how the two might affect each other. One theory is ‘not much’. The leaders of Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems even signed up to a joint declaration as part of a ‘Show the love’ campaign for the climate. All three affirmed that they wanted a ‘fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal’ at the Paris climate summit in December; that they will set carbon budgets in line with the 2008 Climate Change Act; and that they commit to end the use of ‘unabated’ coal for power generation.

Little of that is new. But the declaration could still be significant. Backsliding after the election is now less likely, on balance, and the UK’s ‘consensus’ has been hailed abroad with Al Gore calling it "inspiring leadership and true statesmanship" necessary to overcome vested interests resisting change.

The pledge can be seen as part of a wider view that efforts to tackle climate change must not fall further into being seen as a partisan political issue. The organizers of the pledge, the Green Alliance, point out that businesses need firm long term commitments in order to have the confidence to invest in green industries.

A second view is that choosing a strategy to deal with climate change is inherently political and of course deep political divisions therefore exist - not necessarily about the science but about the policy at the least. An examination of details of actual policies and policy proposals (below) would seem to back up this view.

To begin with, UKIP has pledged to repeal the Climate Change Act, abolish green taxes ‘to lower energy bills’, and not to introduce new support for renewables. Their energy spokesman Roger Helmer (an MEP who defected from the Conservatives) bases his party’s latest energy policy on his theory that "there are increasing doubts about the theory of man-made climate change" and that “climate change” (in inverted commas) is "so last century". UKIP’s former leader in Scotland, Christopher Monkton, is a stalwart climate sceptic who warned that the UN Copenhagen climate conference was a plan to create a ‘communist world government’. And a UKIP MEP recently warned that decarbonising Europe’s energy supply would deprive crops of ‘natural gas to grow from’. UKIP’s climate scepticism is far from the mainstream but in a hung parliament UKIP could push the balance - not least within the Conservative party - further against climate action.

The Conservatives like to point to Margaret Thatcher’s leadership on climate change, but many including George Osborne oppose UK climate leadership and see carbon targets as primarily a threat to competitiveness. Thatcher’s one-time chancellor Nigel Lawson is now chair of perhaps the UK’s leading climate sceptic campaign. Although Burkean conservatism supposedly takes an intergenerational view, Cameron’s efforts to rebrand the Tories as an environmentalist party have been hampered by a raft of policies and his appointments of climate sceptics such as Owen Paterson to ministerial positions. Despite losing climate sceptic voters to UKIP, a survey identified far more climate sceptic MPs in Tory ranks than in Labour or the Liberal Democrats, reflecting an underlying ambivalence.

Perhaps for this reason, catalogues of recent Conservative climate change achievements or plans are not easy to find. One spirited Tory peer pointed to government requirements for new homes to be ‘zero carbon’ from 2016 - these are actually a watered down version of regulations initially set out by Labour in 2006. The coalition government’s last budget cut fuel duty (despite prices dropping) and granted £1.3 billion of tax breaks to help North Sea oil and gas industries extract an extra 120m barrels over the next 5 years, equivalent to 50m additional tons of emissions.

David Cameron has pledged to go ‘all out’ to develop a domestic shale gas industry, also known as fracking, arguing that gas can displace other dirtier fuels (though economic justifications are more common). Leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane could worsen fracking’s climate credentials. The government recently defeated Green and Labour ammendments to a controversial clause in the Infrastructure Bill that will oblige current and future governments to ‘maximis[e] the economic recovery of UK petrolium’. Environmentalist George Monbiot has deemed this ‘a legal obligation to help trash the world’s atmosphere’, contravening the Climate Change Act.

Should they win in May, the Tories have promised to end support for additional on-shore wind projects. Plans to put local authorities in charge of planning is also likely to effectively stop new onshore wind. Conservatives argue targets can be achieved without further onshore wind (although the government’s own Climate Change Committee’s scenarios for achieving 2030 targets all involve more onshore wind and it remains the cheapest renewables option).

The Conservative reluctance to commit public funding to energy infrastructure does not stretch to nuclear. Despite the coalition agreement ruling out subsidizing nuclear in the government has underwritten the first new nuclear power station building programme in two decades, guaranteeing EDF close to twice current electricity prices, inflation linked, until 2060 (a deal Labour has said it will not renegotiate).

Liberal Democrat energy and climate secretary Ed Davey has clashed regularly over the years with sceptical Tory ministers and Lib Dem votes with the government have incurred the wrath of green groups. But Davey also defends the coalition’s record, insisting it is indeed the ‘greenest government in history’ (particularly compared to the first two terms of the previous Labour government). Lib Dems voted with Tories to cut Labour’s solar feed-in tariffs, but Davey says he fought off Tory ‘dinosaurs’ wanting to axe green subsidies, especially when Labour attacked the government on energy prices. Much of current energy policy represents compromises between Davey and his own Tory energy ministers as well as the Treasury. Liberal Democrats reluctantly agreed to expansion of nuclear, and Ed Davey’s efforts to secure renewables targets in international negotiations have been praised internationally. The party is now proposing carbon targets for electricity generation, a more substantial green investment bank and a host of greener transport measures after 2015. Davey supports the North Sea tax breaks claiming UK fossil fuels are preferable to buying Russian and Qatari gas.

Ed Miliband for his part has declared that climate action will be a key part of a Labour government and Ed Balls recently called for an end to coalition-induced ‘uncertainty’ for green business investment. Miliband puts much emphasis on the international level, and should Labour win power in May, the hard-hitting John Prescott is already set to play a key role in the UK’s contribution to the crunch UN climate summit in Paris in December of this year. Ruling out an EU referendum that might end in ‘Brexit’ also means that a Labour-led UK is more likely to remain part of the EUs global climate leadership.

At home Labour promises a revamping of the ‘Green Deal’ and a beefed up Green Investment Bank that can raise money itself. In terms of its track record, Labour has been attacked for inaction prior to 2006 but can also claim to have led the first government in the world to put carbon cutting targets into law with the Climate Change Act in 2008. Labour has supported nuclear and the pursuit of a new onshore fracking industry (although they succeeded in amending the Infrastructure Bill to make fracking dependent on environmental and planning safeguards that may well hamper it). Economists suggest Labour’s energy price freeze would not promote greater efficiency nor help renewables.

The SNP is set to be the third largest group in Westminster and passed its own Climate Change (Scotland) Act in 2009 with help from the Scottish Greens. The nationalists are sceptical of fracking, want to phase out nuclear, and want to develop Scotland’s considerable wind and wave potential in particular. However, an independent Scotland would rely heavily on oil and gas revenues, and the SNPs Independence White paper pledged to develop oil and gas industry further as well as to cut passenger fuel duty on flights. Independence remains the key goal for the nationalists.

Greens have the most radical targets when it comes to decarbonisation. They work backwards from what the IPCC says is required to stay below 2 degrees of warming and aim for 10% of 1990 UK emissions levels by 2030 (or more cuts if scientific consensus shifts!). They rule out nuclear on grounds of economics, safety, roll-out time and perceived links to nuclear weapons. In addition to proposing a ‘major programme of investment’ in energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewables the party proposes a system of personal carbon quotas and duties on carbon-heavy imports. Personal emissions permits would be tradable but initially distributed equally among all UK adults. This would mimic the ‘contract and converge’ strategy proposed in global climate talks, aimed at eventually reducing the total emitted while evening out the levels of per capita pollution between countries. The Greens join up climate change policy to a large number of other policy areas including agriculture, school transport and housing. Their opposition to the looming trade deal TTIP is partly based on worries that much climate policy will be rendered vulnerable to corporate injunctions. Critics say they are proposing self-imposed poverty and taxing carbon heavy imports could incur hefty EU fines.

So although there may be some agreement on the overall goals, voters will still have both science deniers, policy deniers and different ways of tackling (or not tackling) climate change on the ballot paper in May. Priorities and preferred tools differ significantly.

In addition, the parties clearly listen to different interest groups. Sir Ian Wood is founder of the Wood Group, one of the UK’s largest oil and gas companies as well as being an ‘independent adviser’ to the Treasury. Labour knighted him and Ed Davey commissioned him to lead a review of the regulatory regime governing oil and gas extraction in the North Sea. The billionaire businessman recommended lowering tax and changed regulations to revive the industry after oil prices plummeted. George Osborne duly gave the £1.3 billion tax breaks. The SNP recently fell out with Woods over whether an independent Scotland was economically viable. The founder of the renewable energy company Ecotricity Dale Vince has donated to Labour (as well as to Green MP Caroline Lucas’s re-election campagin) in response to what he sees as the government’s attacks on the renewables industries and Tory anti-EU politics.

Finally, the latest ‘big idea’ in climate policy of leaving fossil fuels in the ground also divides opinion. Osborne has declared his aim is to get ‘every last drop’ of oil out of the sea bed, and the SNP’s economic plans rely on continued extraction. Labour and the Liberal Democrats did not oppose his easing of the North Sea taxation regime, whereas the Greens were horrified at the "eye-watering" tax breaks "weeks after a cross-party climate pledge". Scientists calculate that the majority of known reserves will have to be left in the ground if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.

How much of UK climate politics is driven by electoral worries? Polling indicates that a majority of voters claim climate will matter to how they cast their vote: 70% wanted their preferred parties to have a ‘strong position’ on climate change. This was particularly strong for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters, but even a majority of Conservative voters, when asked directly, favour such a stance. Whether it actually affects votes is another matter.

Regardless, climate change could end up a key election issue even without being a central concern to the average voter. If the Green Party vote lands on 5%, some have argued that this could secure an overall Conservative majority. If Labour fails to convince Green voters of its climate credentials, this could in theory put Cameron back in power. Others argue that the Conservatives could loose the election by alienating their climate-concerned voters, particularly among the young. (The rise of UKIP may of course swamp either of these dynamics).

Still, Miliband’s recent climate speech is hard to dismiss as a rearguard action against the rise of the Greens. As a former energy and climate secretary Miliband knows the area well. Miliband apparently played a crucial role at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit at the 11th hour by helping to save the meeting from abject failure. Seconds before the chair, the clueless Danish PM, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was about to abandon the deal in the small hours, Miliband threw himself into the ring to call a time-out. This prevented total collapse and the Copenhagen Accord, though flawed, was agreed a few hours later (with Mr Rasmussen fast asleep in bed).

If politics is not your primary passion, polling has also suggested that people are less likely to consider going on a date, starting a relationship or marrying you if you do not support climate action – perhaps lucky for some that UK elections are conducted by secret ballot.

PN

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