The 2019 General Election: Heads in the Sand?

By Todd Olive, Editor-In-Chief

And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away. 
Extract from ‘Ozymandias’, by Percy Bysshe Shelley 

For some, Brexit represents the most significant event in Britain’s post-war history. For many, it’s the hinge upon which the 2019 General Election will swing – to the desecration of all others. It stands alone, the single pedestal in the vast desert Shelley speaks of: health, crime, immigration and the economy fall by the wayside, ground into the dust, sacrificed on a political altar in the name of a righteous crusade – no matter whether you fall on the ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ side of this, the most British of divisions. 

There looms, however, a larger threat – one which was, only yesterday, declared as a planetary emergency by the very institution that Britain is seeking to leave: climate change. Where, then – if, as the science tells us, we have such a short time to make concrete commitments towards preventing catastrophic global heating – does the Climate Emergency actually fit in to this election? 

Brexit, pursued by… a bear? 

But when one looks deeper into what the public says will affect their vote on December 12th, you find a more nuanced picture: an Ipsos Mori poll only a few weeks ago found that 27% of people might change their vote based solely on environmental policies – which puts climate change behind only Brexit, health, and crime in the public consciousness. To be clear, that’s ahead of immigration, education, pensions, welfare, inequality, and the economy. This week, Channel 4 hosted the first ever election debate focussed on the Climate Emergency – though it was marred by the absence of the Prime Minister. 

Take the big picture, therefore, and this year’s election perhaps doesn’t sit solely in Brexit’s domain. Let’s take a deeper look, then, at the varying positions taken by the main national parties. 

Saving the world – the British way? 

Last Wednesday, 27th November, this correspondent was invited to participate in a panel discussion about the future of fossil fuels, which very much encapsulated the four different approaches embodied by the parties. In the words of fellow panellist Peter Mather, Head of BP’s UK and European operations – everyone agrees on the destination, just not how fast to get there. 

Conservative Party

Boris Johnson introduces the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto with a two-page love letter to voters, setting out his party’s key pledges. Its second-to-last sentence pledges “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” – the start of a promising programme, or a casualised afterthought? 

The party’s key environmental pledge is to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, through significant investment in energy efficiency and unified bus, tram and train transport networks. A temporary ban on all fracking is emphasised – at least, until it can be done ‘safely’ – while a ban on plastic waste exports will see producers held to account for the full costs of dealing with any waste produced by their products. Sitting at the bottom of the pile in the ‘race to the forest’, the Tories have pledged to plant 30m trees a year until 2024. 

In a surprise twist to the general rule, though, the manifesto includes a grey cloud to accompany the silver lining in the party’s environmental policy: £29bn in investment for the country’s road networks, clearly in support of emissions from conventional transport. 

Labour Party

Lauding Labour’s newly-unveiled manifesto at a campus speaker event organised by the Warwick Think Tank on November 21st, Matt Western, Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate for Warwick and Leamington, said that “the plans that we unveiled today will actually help us realise and bring about environmental, social, and economic justice.” Invoking the Green New Deal proposed by various primary candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Labour’s manifesto combines economic and environmental policy in targeting harmful emissions while ensuring social justice – headlined by a windfall tax on oil firms. 

Matt Western addresses students (Image: Todd Olive/GLOBUS)

While the manifesto fails to name a specific date for achieving net zero emissions, it does pledge to achieve net zero energy emissions by ‘the 2030s’ – including 90% of electricity and 50% of heat from low-carbon sources by 2030. This is achieved by a reversal of the ban on new onshore wind farms, and a programme of investment in new solar, tidal and wind energy sources – supplemented by the phasing out of petrol and diesel car sales by 2030.

In an entirely unprecedented move, Labour have also pledged to plant three trees every second over two decades from 2020 – amounting to 2bn trees by 2040. 

Liberal Democrats

Continuing their efforts to recover from electoral oblivion after the electorate decimated the party’s line-up of MPs in the 2015 General Election, the Lib Dems have made the Climate Emergency the second key pillar of their pitch to centrist, pro-European voters – having pivoted to hoovering up moderate Tory voters horrified by the prospect of a no-deal Brexit as far back as August

With a manifesto that appears to have climate policy as it’s unifying strand, the Lib Dems are proposing an action plan to achieve net zero by 2045, with £130bn for infrastructure and £50bn for regional infrastructure rebalancing, supplemented by a transition fund to cushion the cost to communities affected by climate mitigation policies, and a £5bn initial capitalisation for a Green Investment Bank to attract private investment in zero carbon projects. This is in support of an interim target to generate 80% of electricity from renewables by 2030. 

Fracking, non-recyclable single-use plastics, and airport expansions would all be shown the door under a Lib Dem government with an outright ban, as well as a new tax on frequent flyers. Continuing the theme of a forestry bidding war, the manifesto promises 60m trees a year until 2045. 

Green Party

If this correspondent were to be leader of the Green Party during this election, its slogan would be “they’re all late to the party.” The party has advocated for strong action on climate change and the environment more widely for many years, as a strong foundation for socioeconomic change: Baroness Natalie Bennett, one of the party’s two members of the House of Lords, argued at Warwick’s inaugural Climate Negotiating Forum in late October that “there are enough resources in the world for everyone to have a decent life and care for the planet.” 

Baroness Bennett addresses the Warwick Climate Negotiating Forum (Image: Beth Disdel/WCNF)

In some respects, the party has been outdone on its green credentials this time around: Labour, for example, have pledged on average 300m more trees by the end of 2030 than the Green Party and to match its proposal to phase out petrol and diesel car sales by 2030 – while the Lib Dems have seized ground by pledging an identical ban on fracking.  

The Greens, however, have by far the most ambitious target for carbon neutrality – 2030 – accompanied by a pledge of £100bn a year to tackle climate change. Under the Greens, wind energy would provide 70% of our energy mix by 2030, with other renewables making up most of the rest; new nuclear power stations would be banned, a step that so far Labour has declined to take. 

So what have we learned? 

Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green Party all appear only distinguishable by their target dates and the extent to which their climate policies tie in with social justice, inequality, and other aspects of the political agenda. Criticisms might be pointed at the Lib Dems for their record in government with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015, while the Greens or Labour might be accused of flagrantly excessive spending promises – and the Tories appear to have somewhat driven past the point when it comes to their net zero target and proposed spending on roads – but one thing is clear: this isn’t just the Brexit election. It’s the climate election, too. 

Header image: Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash 

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