Prime minister Boris Johnson visits a tea factory after kicking of the Conservatives' election campaign. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/WPA Pool/Getty Images Prime minister Boris Johnson visits a tea factory after kicking of the Conservatives' election campaign. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/WPA Pool/Getty Images

General election: What’s on the green agenda?

With the general election campaign now gearing up, the UK’s main parties are already unveiling eye-catching pledges to capitalise on the surge in public concern around climate change and environmental issues.

Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell has laid out plans for a £250bn investment fund to slash the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions over ten years. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, would set aside £15bn to retrofit as many as 26 million homes over the next parliament.

Conservative chancellor Sajid Javid has torn up his party’s spending rules, pledging to spend an extra £20bn a year on infrastructure projects, although with less of a green focus than the other parties. 

Not to be outdone, the Green Party launched its election bid with a plan to invest £100bn a year on addressing climate change - a sum roughly equivalent to the UK’s education budget.

Change in the air

Across the mainstream parties, there is near unanimity on the need for more government action if the UK is to meet its climate and environmental goals. 

Even Conservative ministers strongly associated with the party’s liberatarian wing have come out in favour of public sector involvement. 

“There’s nothing to convert someone from being a radical free-marketeer to seeing the virtues of government action than making them an energy minister,” said Kwasi Kwarteng, who has served at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, during a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference this September. 

It is perhaps no surprise that the environment is expected to be a major theme of this election. 

Pollsters have recorded a steep and sustained increase in popular concern about green issues, likely triggered by revelations on plastic waste, record summer temperatures and fires in the Amazon rainforest. 

“It is quite a dramatic rise that we’ve seen,” said Chris Curtis, political research manager at YouGov. “When we look at what are the most important issues facing the country, one of the biggest shifts we’ve seen in the data over the past two years is an increase in people selecting the environment.”

In 2017, just 8% of the public said it was one of the most important issues facing the country. Now that figure stands at 25%, according to YouGov figures. 

Political response

That trend is reflected in Conservative Party polling, said William Nicolle, an energy and environment specialist at Bright Blue, a liberal conservative think tank. 

“Politically, the Conservatives need to capitalise on the environment,” he explained. 

Many Tory MPs are proud of their track record in office - particularly of setting the target to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “I think this election will be where they definitely hammer home the green agenda on how to deliver net zero,” Nicolle said.

But it remains to be seen whether the party will offer any transformational green policies in its manifesto. 

Eamonn Ives, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies, an influential free market think tank, said the party would likely devote much of its energy pointing to “past successes”, particularly when it comes to CO2 emissions.

“They are likely to focus on trying to build on what they see as existing success,” he said. “I think they will continue to talk about money they’ve put forward for low-carbon infrastructure, and remind voters about [existing] climate projects.

“The Conservatives will be keen to say in broad terms that the UK is decarbonising and that it's done so because of, not in spite of, having a market-based economy,” Ives explained. Prime minister Boris Johnson is also likely to trumpet the potential of using markets to deliver low-carbon innovation, which he touched upon in his speech officially launching the election campaign.

Nicolle was also sceptical that the Conservatives will increase their overall climate pledges. “A policy we’re more likely to see is the banning of conventional petrol and diesel cars - I imagine that will be more towards 2035” - five years earlier than the current cut-off date.

Race to the top? 

The extent of government intervention to reach net zero is likely to be a key battleground between the parties, despite a slew of new spending pledges from all sides. 

“All empirical evidence in the past says that if you want to drive very rapid transition and structural shifts in the economy you won’t get the scale of transformation if you just rely on price signals and carbon taxes,” argued Mathew Lawrence, the director of progressive think tank Common Wealth. 

“I would imagine Labour, the SNP, certainly the Green Party would say public investment should be a driver of decarbonisation on a scale we haven’t previously seen,” he added.

However, it will be crucial that the parties spell out in concrete terms how they plan to reach their ambitious climate targets.

“There’s a lot of focus on promises and pledges for the future, targets for 20-30 years’ time,” said Shane Tomlinson, deputy chief executive of think tank E3G. “Those things are good. But the truth remains today that the UK is not on track to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budget.”

While Labour Party members voted in favour of a 2030 net zero pledge, party leaders are yet to decide on including a specific date in the election manifesto. 

“Whatever the date is, the important thing is the mechanisms to deliver it,” said Lawrence: “a green investment strategy to deliver new jobs, low carbon infrastructure, decarbonising our transport system [and] our energy system.”

Brexit threats

Some Conservative Party observers are worried that fears of a ‘Trump trade deal’, as the opposition has dubbed a future agreement with the US, may badly hit their electoral prospects. 

It could be “a tremendously tricky wicket” for the party, as one put it. Images of chlorinated chicken have previously gained traction on social media, crystallising fears that a Conservative government could backtrack on food and environmental standards in a quest to seal a deal with the US. 

For Tomlinson the election should be an opportunity to “spell out what the dangers of a US trade deal will be”. 

“Obviously everyone knows about chlorinated chicken,” he said, “but it’s much broader than that: it’s about residual pesticides on food, it’s about GMOs, it’s about hormone-fed beef, it’s about lower standards for vehicle emissions.

“The UK faces a choice at this election: you can either choose to face primarily towards the EU… Or you can pivot towards the US and the Singapore-on-Thames model,” he said.

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