Wednesday, May 5, 2010


There are many thrilling aspects to the British election due to be held on May 6th.

A hardfought

battle over environmental priorities is not one of them. Climate is

the top environmental issue across the board, and the three major parties,

Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, broadly agree on the need for

measures to cut carbon dioxide emissions steeply. So, for that matter, do the

regional parties and most of the minor parties.

The most notable exception, out towards the fringe, is the UK Independence

Party. UKIP speaks for those opposed to membership of the European Union, a

group that has a lot of overlap with climate sceptics, and is the political home of

Christopher Monckton, the highestprofile

climate sceptic of the "it's all an

outright fraud" persuasion that Britain can boast. UKIP is proud of its own climate

scepticism, and says it would repeal the 2008 Climate Change Act, remove Al

Gore DVDs from schools, allow wind turbines only offshore, and so on. Even so,

the party is firmly, indeed fervently, pronuclear,

wants more highspeed


and enthuses over electric vehicles. It would build more coastal and flood

defences and invest in clean coal. Leaving aside rhetoric and renewables — both

things which British climate discussions might be said to overemphasise — even

UKIP isn't that far out of the consensus.

So when the energy, environment and climate of the major parties meet to

debate in public, as they did on April 21st and April 26, an assortment of green

charities and pressure groups making common cause, there was more dull

worthiness than high drama. The major parties all agree on reductions to Britain's

emissions, increases in the deployment of renewables, investments in carbon

capture and storage systems for coalfired

power stations, a big nationwide push

to increase the energy efficiency of people's homes, new highspeedtrain


and the creation of a Green Investment Bank.


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The shared level of commitment and wonkiness is, in its way, inspiring (though it

must be a bit dispiriting for the Green party, which to stay distinctively

unelectable has had to move towards a

thoroughgoing socialjustice

agenda funded

with tax increases noone

else would

touch). They all had the kind of detailed

knowledge of green issues that just a few

years ago would have been perceived as

superfluous to a political career, any one of

them could have been fronting Friends of

the Earth campaign from a few years ago. The issues that were once marginal or

excluded have gone mainstream which may be nice, but hardly produces

fireworks, unless you consider the correct way of applying business rates to

onshore wind farms an incendiary issue.

Where there are differences, they are sometimes smaller than they seem. Labour

is in favour of a third runway at Heathrow, which the other main parties point to

as evidence of its poor green credentials. But Labour rules out all other new

runways, which the other major parties have not. Which party's position would

actually result in the lowest emissions from aircraft is not clear. Nor is it that

obvious those runways are the key factor. Arguing for a tighter cap on emissions

for the industry is probably more important, not least because it has effects


The issue where there is the largest substantive issue is on nuclear power. The

Liberal Democrats oppose it, and would try to meet the already ambitious carbon

reduction targets that the country has subscribed to (a 34% reduction in carbon

emissions, measured from a 1990 baseline, by 2020) without it. The

Conservatives and Labour are in favour; one of the reasons that the

Conservatives are planning to institute a "floor" on carbon prices is presumably


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that it will make nuclear power look plausible to investors without being seen

directly to subsidise it. But both Conservatives and Labour are pronuclear


some reluctance, aware both of the technology's costs and its unpopularity. This

awareness may be why they do not attack the Liberals on the subject as strongly

as they might. Though the Liberals have a point that nuclear is in no way a quick

fix, nor is climate change a shortterm

crisis. To ignore an established, widely

used lowcarbon

technology a priori when committed to massive longterm

decarbonisation makes no sense.

There are also areas where the consensus between the parties falls short of what

green lobbies and others want. All three main parties have included some sort of

Green Investment Bank in their plans. But they are not interested in capitalising

it to anything like the extent that the people pushing the idea — notably Climate

Change Capital, an investor and advice company — would like. Backers of the

bank want to see the £40 billion ($62 billion) that is likely to be raised from the

sale of carbon allowances between 2012 and 2020 to go into its coffers to do

good infrastructural work. None of the parties likely to have a say in government

will commit to that, leaving the prospect, at present, of a small and rather

ineffectual organisation.

Amid all this consensus, for good or ill, the biggest difference between the parties

lies not in the area of policy, but in the extent of their internal unity on green

matters. A significant number of voters are sceptical enough about climate

change to doubt the wisdom of any costly action, and they probably vote

disproportionately Conservative. The blogs that Conservative activists follow have

a strong tendency to scepticism — so do some of the party's incoming MPs, and

more of them simply seem to see the environment as a low priority.

The Conservative manifesto looks green in exactly the way that you would expect

of a party where the leadership has set out to use environmental issues as a way


(5) of (5)

of "detoxifying" its brand. It shows that they are quite acceptable to "progressive"

voters on a set of issues that the Liberals long owned and that Labour has

invested a great deal in. But how much of a green agenda the Conservative

leadership would be able to get through if it had only a small majority, and there

was genuine dissent within its ranks, is hard to say.

Climate scepticism is hardly likely to be the problem to David Cameron, the

Conservative leader, that euroscepticism

was to his predecessor John Major —

not least because, as UKIP shows, you can be climate sceptic and still find quite a

lot to like in carboncutting

policies. But there could be resistance to policies

which actually cost a lot of money, such as the support of offshore wind on a

massive scale. That in turn opens the question of whether, denied support on its

own benches, the Conservatives might receive support from other parties on such

issues. A consensus before the election is one thing. Afterwards, when there is

political damage to be done, it could become harder.

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