current affairs politics

What will the 2019 election do for the environment?

On Wednesday I got to chair a Luton climate hustings with my local Extinction Rebellion branch. It was an interesting opportunity to meet the candidates for Luton’s north and south constituencies, or at least the 10 out of the 14 who made it along on the night. I don’t know how much truth there is in the idea that this is a ‘climate election’, but it was notable that all the candidates recognised that it was important.

In fact, what we had on Wednesday was parties competing to see who could offer the best green policies. I haven’t had a chance to watch Channel 4’s climate debate yet, but perhaps it was similar. I’m not sure I’ve seen this before. Parties usually compete over who will steward the economy best, who will create jobs or cut taxes, or who can be trusted with the NHS. If you ask about something else, candidates will often find a way of turning their answer back into a practiced line about what they consider to be the ‘real’ issues of the election.

That didn’t happen on Wednesday. Only one candidate mentioned Brexit, and that was the Liberal Democrats. Even the Brexit party managed to get through the evening without talking about Brexit, and did their best to talk about climate change even though it doesn’t actually appear in their manifesto.

Leaving the Brexit Party to one side for not bothering with the environment at all, there is actually quite a lot of consensus on climate and the environment across the parties. All the big ones support net zero, and they all support the phase out of petrol and diesel vehicles. The differences are in the timetables, with the Conservatives the slowest. All the major parties have plans for major tree planting initiatives. None of them support fracking, though the Conservatives give themselves a get out clause of allowing it if the science says it can be done safely. All of them support an energy efficiency drive.

In other words, there is positive engagement with the issues across the political spectrum. Whichever party wins the election, if anyone actually ‘wins’ these things any more, there will be a handful of policies I’ve wanted to see for a while. (If you’re interested in comparing the climate and energy aspects of the manifesto, Carbon Brief have helpfully clipped the relevant sections into a table here.)

There are differences though, as you would expect. There is less agreement on other issues, such as aviation. The Conservatives are fully in favour of expansion. Labour have some unspecified criteria for growth that amounts to de facto support. The SNP say they want to trial electric planes in Scotland, which they are welcome to do when electric planes exist. The Liberal Democrats are in favour of a frequent flyer levy, and only the Greens have policies that would actually slow the growth of the sector.

Renewable energy is treated very differently across the parties, with the Conservatives reserving their support for offshore wind. They are also committed to North Sea oil and gas, and to nuclear power, and there is no mention of community energy.

The Conservative manifesto also ignores public transport entirely, while Labour promises somewhat vague ‘improvements’. The Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and the Greens talk a good game on bus travel, and the Green Party and the SNP talk specifically about walking and cycling.

On waste, the Conservatives pledge to “continue to lead the world in tackling plastics pollution”, a claim British politicans should really stop making, especially with the modest proposals made here. Labour promise to learn from Wales, which actually is a leader. The Lib Dems want to ban all non-recyclable single use plastics, which is more ambitious. Only they and the greens refer to a circular economy, which is a shame given how well it ought to plug into Labour’s talk of a green industrial revolution.

At the moment the Conservatives are ahead in the polls, which would deliver the weakest set of environmental policies in the pack, by quite some distance. In which case, the 2019 election could do very little for the environment, and certainly not a proportional response to the crisis we find ourselves in. But who knows? Polls don’t always get it right, and some kind of coalition may yet emerge. If British politics has taught us anything in 2019, it’s that anything can happen.

  • Note for those doing hustings: we had 11 candidates down to attend at one point, which would give them very little time to speak each. So they got 3 minutes for speeches at the beginning, then 2 minutes each on their climate policies. The second hour of the evening was around tables, with each candidate hosting a table with an XR faciliator. It worked very well and the candidates appreciated the unusual format. People had a chance to chat with the candidates. And let’s face it, nobody is choosing from the whole field, but from two or three candidates tops. A workshop/cafe format means you can just talk to the parties and candidates who interest you, and I’d recommend it.
  • Just out of curiosity really, here’s a report on the environmental hustings we did in Luton in 2010.

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