On May 7th 2015, the United Kingdom goes to the polls to elect a brand new government. The competing political parties' environmental policies haven't seen the prominence the GEC feels they deserve, but the Greener Britain Hustings offered a chance to see four of the most environmentally engaged parties discuss their green priorities for the next UK Parliament.
The politicians featured were:
- Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Conservative Party
- Rt Hon Ed Davey MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, The Liberal Democrats
- Rt Hon Caroline Flint MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, The Labour Party
- Caroline Lucas MP, The Green Party
The debate covered a wide range of environmental topics, with some provoking agreement amongst parties, whilst others divided participants four ways. The GEC was, of course, especially interested in what policies the respective parties were promising to support an ever strengthening UK green economy. But, unsuprisingly, the discussion wasn't to be contained by any single issue, even one as broad as the green economy.
The key party positions
The debate kicked off by asking what each MP felt was the single most critical environmental issue for the next Parliament, and the answers hinted at a range of submerged party priorities. The Conservatives pledged to continue supporting the existing Climate Change Act, whilst taking a broader approach to improve air quality, water, biodiversity, and the marine environment. However, new policy initiatives and concrete plans were limited.
Labour put climate to the fore and promised to prioritise strong UK action to influence the Paris COP 21 negotiations at the end of the year. The Liberal Democrats highlighted the five green bills in their manifesto and proposed a commitment to a 'zero carbon Britain' by 2050, going beyond the UK's current 80 per cent emissions reduction target. The Greens argued that the scale of the climate change crisis requires a fundamental change to the UK's governance, with changes to cross-departmental architecture to embed environmental concerns at the heart of government.
Emissions & Energy
For the green economy, there was much talk about energy and travel but little on green businesses and support for going green. All parties were committed to the 2050 80% UK greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, but there were differing views on the roles of coal, gas and renewables in the energy mix. The Greens' approach centred on renewables, the rejection of fracking, and supporting wide divestment from fossil fuels.
The other three parties were more cautious in their commitment to green energy policies. Labour, for example, stressed the need for energy price freezes to tackle fuel poverty, whilst the Liberal Democrats supported more R&D and support for clean energy innovation. Aside from the Greens, none of the parties supported a ban on fracking, stressing that the UK’s reliance on gas was too strong. Labour and the Conservatives, though, disagreed over the robustness of current regulations, with the former demanding further oversight before fracking would get the go-ahead.
The European Union
The UK's membership of the EU has an obvious and significant impact on its environmental policy, and all four parties were against a UK exit from the EU. Labour stressed that an EU exit would put the UK in a vulnerable position regarding energy security and the Liberal Democrats emphasised that the UK would not be taken seriously at climate negotiations following a departure.
By contrast, the Greens stressed that although the EU was a force for good it still required serious reform and progression so that it did not set a ceiling on green policies - for example through the impending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The Conservatives emphasised the need for EU reform rather than exit, with the improvements to the Common Fisheries Policy given as an example of the potential for change.
Areas of agreement
Despite the disagreements, cross-party consensus was reached on the problems of over-fishing and the need to strengthen energy performance requirements for private landlords. The Conservatives highlighted their above mentioned progress in securing changes to the Common Fisheries Policy and a ban on the discard of healthy fish, whilst Labour suggested that more fishing zones around the UK needed to be protected and set under national control.
This brief united front was broken by a strong disagreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party on how to go about improving the dire energy performance of UK homes, with the relative success of the Coalition's existing Green Deal policy called into question. The stark disagreement between Ed Davey MP, defending the Green Deal's record, and Caroline Lucas MP, branding it an expensive failure, was perhaps the highlight of the evening.
The event ended as it began, with a vote from the 100+ audience on the key question:‘Will the next [UK] government make environmental progress?’
Before the debate, 36 per cent of the audience believed that the next UK government would make environmental progress, while after the debate only 30 per cent were environmentally optimistic.This was a dispiriting result, but it was tough to discern whether the reaction was driven by the environmental policies on show - some of which were certainly interesting and progressive - or a sober prediction of the likely indecisive outcome of the election and the divided and environmentally-distracted make-up of the next UK government.
In the end it was a 'must-do-better' assessment from the audience, and the GEC concurs. The UK needs more ambition from its politicians if it is to really get to grips with the coming environmental challenge, grasp the significance of 2015 for climate negotiations, and fully support its essential and growing green economy.
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