All the main political parties have now published their manifestos for what promises to be one of the most tightly contested elections in a generation. The highly contentious Brexit debate is still high on the media agenda, but the plethora of new pledges to protect the environment, and deal with a climate crisis, has become a key election issue for most parties. In this article John Barwise looks at how the main political parties intend to deliver a low carbon future and speculates on what’s achievable.

Climate emergency

The latest report from the UN’s world meteorological organisation (WMO) claims levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another record high and are causing increasingly severe impacts of climate change. In an urgent appeal to all governments to honour their Paris Agreement commitments, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, said: “We need to translate the commitments into action and increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of the mankind.”

The WMO report comes just days after Oxford Dictionaries took the unprecedented step of declaring ‘climate emergency’ as the “word of the year,” because it has "lasting potential as a term of cultural significance."

Given the catastrophic consequences of climate change and the impact this is having on people’s lives, it’s hardly surprising that cutting greenhouse gasses (GHG) has, for the first time, risen to the top of the UK’s election agenda. All the main political parties have pledged to achieve Net Zero emissions and have set out their priorities on how they intend to tackle an emerging climate crisis. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green party are also campaigning for a ‘Green New Deal’ as a framework to deliver a low carbon future for the UK.

Net zero — party commitments and costs

The UK was the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. At the time, the then Chancellor, Philip Hammond warned this could cost the UK economy around £1 trillion.

Conservative Party — The Tories introduced the Net Zero legislation during the last Parliament. The new manifesto confirms the party will honour its net-zero date, noting 2050 is in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change.

Costings to achieve its net zero ambitions include £4.5 billion on Clean Growth Strategy, £1.5 billion to support uptake in electric vehicles, £800 on energy efficiency measures and £315m to help high energy use business cut emissions by decarbonising industrial processes and improved energy efficiency.

Labour Party — Labour aims to achieve net zero “well before 2050” with Shadow Business Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey pledging a “pathway towards net zero by 2030,” and plans to go faster if credible pathways can be found.

To meet its commitment, Labour says it plans to introduce a new £400 billion “national transformation fund”, paid for mainly through borrowing and a windfall tax on the oil industry, to invest in infrastructure and low-carbon technology.

Liberal Democrats — The Lib Dems will prioritise making Britain a net-zero emission country and intend to cut today's emissions in half by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2045 at the latest.

The party intends to spend £100 billion tackling the effects of climate change and protecting the environment. The pledge would be funded through borrowing and tax changes as detailed in the party's manifesto, including a £10 billion "renewable power fund" to leverage more than £100 billion of extra private climate investment.

Green Party — The Green Party has pledged to spend £1tn over the next decade to achieve net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2030, two decades earlier than the date approved by Parliament earlier this year. The Greens will also seek to reduce the emissions embedded in UK imports to zero as soon as possible.

The Greens plan to decarbonise every sector of the economy by 2030, which they say will cost around £100 billion a year. They intend to borrow £91.2 billion per year for capital spending on combating climate change and raise another £9 billion by increasing taxes, including a rise in corporation tax from 19% to 24%. The party will also end subsidies to the oil and gas industry and introduce a carbon tax on all imports and domestic extraction of fossil fuel, which they estimate would raise £77 billion every year. The Greens will also appoint a ‘Carbon Chancellor’ to oversee green investment, tax and funding plans.

Scottish Government — The Scottish Government has formally acknowledged the ‘climate emergency’ and plans to introduce a "net-zero" target in law for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Change Bill — which aims to have all emissions offset by 2045 – has been passed unanimously by Scottish Parliament.

Scotland’s emissions have almost halved since 1990, outperforming the UK, and most western European nations, in delivering reductions. The new law will see emissions set at 75% lower than 1990 levels by the end of the next decade and ministers intend to seek further advice from the Committee on Climate Change on updating plans further. A pledge to hold a "citizens' assembly" to help build consensus on ways to tackle climate change was also added to the manifesto.

Delivering on zero carbon and protecting the environment

A key factor that most economists agree on is that investments in environmental improvements far outweigh the costs of doing nothing. Actions to deliver net zero emissions can also have positive impacts on human health and the environment.

Renewables and energy efficiency

Conservative Party — The Conservatives will support an additional 10GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030, which would increase total capacity to 400GW. The manifesto doesn’t include support for onshore wind or solar power and there is no mention of energy storage. There will be £1 billion available through the Ayrton Fund to develop clean energy technologies for developing countries, with additional government spending on UK R&D. Over £9 billion will also be available to improve energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals, including funding for social housing and the public sector.

Labour Party — Labour plans to secure 90% of electricity from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030 and will boost low carbon heating to 50%. A £250 billion Green Transformation Fund would be set up to support 7000 new offshore and 2000 onshore wind turbines, with enough solar panels for '22,000 football pitches'. Labour has also promised to support the Swansea Tidal Lagoon project that was rejected by the Tory government last year. A UK National Energy Agency would own and maintain the national grid infrastructure and oversee decarbonisation, with 14 new Regional Energy Agencies likely to replace existing network operators. There would also be investment in low carbon district heating systems and energy efficiency improvements of most of the UK's 27m homes.

Liberal Democrats — The Lib Dems have promised a £12 billion renewable energy fund to attract £100 billion in private funding, which it says will boost the UK's renewable electricity to 80% by 2030. Investments in tidal and wave power, energy storage, smart grids, hydrogen are also promised. On the homes front, the Lib Dems would expand community and decentralised energy and invest £15 billion to retrofit buildings and increase insulation through an "emergency 10-year programme", focusing on low-income home improvements by 2025 -

Green Party — The Greens plan to spend £100 billion a year to decarbonise the UK energy system. A large portion of the money would be used to promote the efficient use of electricity and heat from renewable sources. Plans include introducing new incentives for wind energy development to deliver 70% of power by 2030, with other renewables incentives to meet the remaining 30% of power demand. The number of interconnectors that link the UK with energy sources from Europe and Scandinavia would also be increased, along with funding to expand energy storage plants. There would also be a £2 billion a year investment in training and skills and support for community-owned renewable energy projects. Under its proposed Green New Deal, the Greens plan to install renewable energy capacity installed in 10 million homes by 2030.

Air quality

Conservative Party — The Conservatives have promised to deliver legally binding targets on air quality as set out in the Environment Bill, which was put on hold because of the election. The plan includes much stricter targets on harmful pollutants (PM2.5), but the manifesto does not include a pledge to adopt limits defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In government, the Conservatives also introduced clean air zones (CAZ) for five major urban conurbations, and told 23 other councils to assess whether CAZs are needed for their area.

Labour Party — Labour’s manifesto includes a commitment to introduce a new Clean Air Act that complies with WHO recommendations on particulates, PM2.5. The proposals also include extending CAZs to other urban areas and additional CAZ measures around schools.

Liberal Democrats — The Lib Dems would also introduce a Clean Air Act, based on WHO guidelines, enforced by a new Air Quality Agency. Ultra-Low Emission Zones, such as the one currently operating in London, would be extended to ten more towns and cities in England.

Green Party — The Greens would also introduce a new Clean Air Act and have set out plans to introduce a new Environmental Protection Commission to ensure rules are enforced. The Act would expand and strengthen a mandatory Clean Air Zone network, empowering local authorities to take control of air pollution in their communities.

Transport

Transport emissions, including road, rail, air and shipping, account for around 25% of all GHG emissions and are expected to grow faster than from any other sector. Reducing exhaust emissions is a primary objective in most manifestos for improving air quality, particularly in urban areas.

All the main political parties plan to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles over varying timescales and to expand the UK network of electric vehicle charging points in public places.

Conservative Party — The Conservatives are planning to spend £100 billion on transport infrastructure projects, including road and rail that would improve links between Leeds and Manchester, followed by connections to other northern cities. There would be extra funding for cities to upgrade bus, train and tram services and the current franchise system of delivery would end, giving metro mayors greater control. The Tories also plan to develop UK's first "all-electric bus town" and set up a £350 million Cycling Infrastructure Fund.

Labour Party — Labour would phase out internal combustion engines by 2030 and accelerate the take up of electric cars with extended charging points and community car clubs in every neighbourhood. Railways would be brought back into public ownership and a rolling programme of full electrification would be launched. Local authorities would be given control of their buses and free bus travel would apply to all under-25. There would also be increase funding for cycling and walking.

Liberal Democrats — The Lib Dems have plans to make all new cars electric by 2030 and cut VAT on electric vehicles to 5%. There would be additional funding for transport infrastructure and all rail network would run on electric power or hydrogen by 2035. The National Infrastructure Commission would be tasked with taking climate and environmental implications into account in all future national infrastructure decisions. The Lib Dems would also invest £4.5 billion to restore rural bus routes and add new routes where needed.

Green Party — The Greens plan to introduce a Carbon Tax on all fossil fuels, as part of their ‘Green New Deal,’ which will increase the cost of petrol, diesel and other transport fuels. A ‘frequent flyer levy’ will also be applied. Other measures include making travelling by public transport cheaper than travelling by car, full electrification of all rail networks and spending £2.5 billion a year on new cycleways and footpaths.

Summary

Despite all the mud-slinging and accusations across the political divide, what is striking about this election is that all the main parties agree on the fundamental principle of delivering a low carbon future for the UK. Phasing out fossil fuels, expanding renewables, improving energy efficiency and promoting electric vehicles are in all their manifestos. What’s different is how each party intends to achieve these ambitions.

For the Tories it’s about maintaining steady progress towards net zero by 2050 using existing institutional frameworks and leveraging private investment to achieve this. For the rest it’s about setting out a bold new Green Deal with massive public investment and greater community ownership and involvement in delivering a greener future.

What’s interesting, as some surveys have shown recently, is that for most Britons, climate change is more important in the long term than Brexit, with many saying it should be a top priority for whoever forms the next government. It seems unlikely that a climate emergency is enough in itself to change the way most people will vote in the general election, but it could be a factor, particularly among younger voters. We will have to wait until December 13 to find out.

Last reviewed 29 November 2019