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The UK election: what this means for climate change

Boris Johnson

It was billed as the climate change election, but in the end, it was nothing like. The landslide victory for the Conservatives in the UK – welcomed by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison who tweeted he was “looking forward to the stability this brings and a new deal for Oz with the UK” – gives them the greatest majority since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Parties that advocated drastic action on climate change saw their hopes dashed at the ballot box. The Labour Party now has the lowest number of seats in Parliament since before the Second World War.

The Conservatives have a clear mandate for both their controversial Brexit plan – but also Johnson’s promise to deliver a “green industrial revolution” and build a net zero emission economy by 2050 – as expressed in their manifesto.

Although this aspiration falls well short of those advocated by other parties, environmentalists were reassured that in his victory speech on the steps of number 10, Johnson promised investment in skills and infrastructure to make the UK “the cleanest, greenest country on earth with the most far-reaching environmental program”.

“You the people of this country voted to be carbon neutral by 2050, and we will do it,” he said.

(How this resonates with Mr Morrison’s determination to keep Australia one of the worst performing countries in the world on climate remains to be seen; but if Morrison is keen to be on the same page as the UK he might need to start reconsidering his stance – Ed.)

The party’s manifesto promised to:

  • use the £1billion (A$1.94 b) Ayrton Fund to develop “affordable and accessible clean energy”
  • increase the UK’s offshore wind capacity goal for 2030 to 40GW
  • invest £500m to help energy-intensive industries move to low-carbon techniques
  • and impose a moratorium on fracking
  • pass an Environment Bill and introduce an Office for Environmental Protection
  • introduce a new £640m Nature for Climate fund to support tree planting and peat restoration
  • launch a new £500m Blue Planet Fund for ocean protection
  • double R&D funding over the course of the next Parliament to £18bn
  • invest £800m to build a carbon capture storage cluster by the mid-2020s.

How other parties fared

The Liberal Democrats lost seats, including that of their leader, Jo Swinson. The Greens managed to hold on to their one seat – Caroline Lucas in Brighton – but failed to win hoped-for Bristol, despite a national vote share increase of almost 60 per cent to more than 850,000, beating the Brexit Party by at least 200,000 votes.

Plaid Cyrmu in Wales kept their four seats, and nationalists made gains in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, which both voted to remain in the European Union. Scotland used to be solid Labour – now the Scottish Nationalist Party holds sway and is already targeting another referendum on Scottish independence.

The big shock was that former Labour heartlands in England and Wales fell to the Tories.

Looking at these trends some are arguing that the prevailing direction of travel for the electorate is towards greater nationalism, but others are pointing out that if the electoral system was based on proportional representation then there would have been a majority for remain-leaning parties; by 6.15am Friday (UK time) morning Conservatives had won 358 seats on 43.6 per cent of the vote while Labour and Lib Dems had 214 on 43.8 per cent of the vote.

Several pro-environment MPs lost their seats in the election, amongst them Mary Creagh, chair of the environmental audit committee, evironment minister Zac Goldsmith and shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman.

Climate action or prevarication?

Boris Johnson famously dodged a leaders’ debate on climate change during the election campaign. The Conservative party is financed partly by climate deniers and the last government had a terrible record on measures to tackle climate change.

It ditched the previous Labour government’s zero carbon homes policy, large-scale support for energy efficiency, onshore wind farms, and feed-in tariffs for solar power. Its record on house building was also abysmal.

Nevertheless the UK is due to host next year’s global climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow. It has world beating legislation in a form of the Climate Change Act. So what can we expect?

Former pro-fracking energy minister Claire Perry O’Neill will be given responsibility for the COP26 presidency.

Friends of the Earth’s head of political affairs Dave Timms said: Many of the policies that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Green party have put forward are commensurate with, or striving to meet, the challenges we face. It is disappointing we have not yet seen the same urgency, ambition or consistency from the Conservative party.”

Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, issued a post-election statement on what Greenpeace wants to see: “The next five years are make or break for the climate and nature emergencies, so we expect the new government to immediately roll out bold commitments to tackle the challenge.

“The weight of responsibility and growing public concern now rests on Boris Johnson’s shoulders to ensure the UK rises to the challenge, fights for climate justice, and shows real leadership.

“This should start with a climate emergency budget to pledge at least 5 per cent government spending per year to deliver a fairer and greener economy for all.

“The Prime Minister should also immediately make good on his manifesto promises to more than triple offshore wind by 2030 and bring forward the date for banning new petrol and diesel cars and vans significantly.”

She observed that their plans are “full of holes” however. It continues to support polluting infrastructure, its trade policy fails to protect environmental and human rights, and there are weak protections in place against overfishing and destructive agriculture.

The property sector is buoyed

The property market has been buoyed by the election result. Jonathan Samuels, CEO of the property lender, Octane Capital, said “After three years of stagnation, the extent of the Conservative victory could see transaction levels really pick up in 2020.”

David Westgate, group chief executive at Andrews Property Group, added that “The property market will be one of the main beneficiaries of Friday’s decisive General Election result. It has the potential to turbocharge the property market and get it out of its current rut.”

He observed that, “Whoever is the new housing minister will need a properly costed and fully structured long-term plan that looks beyond building a certain number of homes each year”.

Green groups have consistently argued that Conservative plans for the climate are insufficient to deliver the net zero target on time because they do not address issues such as the energy efficiency of the existing and future UK building stock or renewable energy.

Green Alliance’s executive director Shaun Spiers said: The test for the new government will be whether it acts fast to tackle climate change and recognises that we face a twin crisis – climate and nature – and that you can’t tackle one without also tackling the other.”

The new Conservative government is already facing calls to finalise plans for a new Energy White Paper, Transport Decarbonisation Strategy, Environment Bill, Agriculture Bill, and Fisheries Bill.

Executive director of the Aldersgate Group Nick Molho said policy decisions made over the next five years will determine whether the UK hits the net zero target on time.

“The prime minister and the Conservative Party have been consistent in voicing their support for climate and environmental action throughout the campaign, they must now deliver on the ground with the urgency and thoroughness that the clean growth challenge requires,” he said.

Cundall sustainability partner Alan Fogarty said: “Ultimately, achieving net-zero carbon is an engineering problem that needs a technical solution [that] requires investment from both the government and private industry. The most important thing we need to consider is … the economic policies. If we don’t have the cash, we can’t invest in environmental policy.”

The Renewable Energy Association called on the government to fast-track a fresh wave of climate action. “The new government must now implement credible policy to decarbonise the economy in line with our Net Zero targets. To achieve this, [it] must be more ambitious and commit to wholesale systems change across energy, in particular for transport and waste, required to unleash the full potential of renewable energy and clean technology.”

The Greens’ co-leader Sian Berry said that they will continue to hold the government to account along the lines of its own bold green new deal which in many ways set the agenda during the election for climate action.

The coming trade negotiations

In any new deal with the European Union, the UK will no longer be part of any of its binding directives;  standards will depend on the trade negotiations, which will take many months.

The Conservative manifesto promised the UK government “would not compromise” on environmental standards in trade negotiations, but Boris Johnson has many times said that he wants the UK to have the freedom to diverge from EU rules.

This has prompted Brussels to warn that attempts to undercut European standards on issues such as the environment and workers’ rights would deny the UK access to the single market in any new trade deal.

The wider European context is that on the same day  the election EU leaders reached an agreement to work for carbon neutrality by 2050 – but without the agreement of coal-hungry Poland.

“Agreement on climate neutrality by 2050 EUCO reaches a deal on this important goal,” EU Council president Charles Michel tweeted. Two EU diplomats said Poland refused to go along with the accord.

In trade negotiations with other countries, Johnson has also signalled that everything will be on the table – as revealed by leaked documents from discussions with the US administration on trade deals produced by Labour during the election.

Since a huge proportion of Britain’s carbon emissions are due to imports from other countries, observers will be watching to see if emissions were a result of weaknesses in these negotiations, or if the UK can use its clout to encourage other countries to decarbonise.

Producing more of its own goods and services within its borders would also reduce transport emissions associated with the export and import.

David Thorpe is author of the books TheOne Planet Life and the new One Planet Cities.  He also runs on line courses such as Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.

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