The UK election: what about the environment? Apologies to readers outside the UK this week. This newsletter is more parochial than usual, with the general election looming on May 6th. British politics can be a mystery, not just to citizens of other countries, but often to voters.
This year, a deeply unpopular third-term Labour government would be expected, in normal circumstances, to be replaced by the Conservatives. But, despite a new leader who has determinedly repositioned the party as both caring and responsible seeking to dominate the middle ground on which elections are normally won they are struggling to convince the electorate to vote for them in sufficient numbers to give an overall majority.
At least, that's what the opinion polls tell us; in a week we will know for sure. Of course, given the winner-takes-all nature of the electoral system, parties which would have significant numbers of MPs under any form of proportional representation play a very minor role in Westminster, if at all. The system naturally leads to government by one of two major parties. Since the implosion of the Liberals early in the twentieth century British politics has been about changes of power between the Conservative and Labour parties at irregular intervals (barring the rather special circumstances of the 1930s and the Second World War). But after previous false starts, the Liberal Democrats now have a chance of replacing Labour in the duopoly, following the televised beauty contest of the leadership debates.
This may have been reinforced by Gordon Brown's unfortunate remarks to his aides, made public by his failure to remember he was still wearing a radio mike. The fate of the Labour party may turn out to have hinged on two soundbites: the use of the word 'bigot' to describe a life-long Labour voter, and the repeated 'I agree with Nick' from the first TV debate.
Nevertheless, and despite the increasingly presidential nature of elections, and the personalisation of politics, we should never forget that we are voting not just for a leader but for a set of policies. Not surprisingly, the focus of campaigning is largely on how the contending parties would both reduce the large structural deficit in the UK economy and also significantly reduce the horrendous national debt. Cuts in public sector expenditure are inevitable, as are tax rises of one form or another. It is the details and timing which are at issue. Equally unsurprising is the reluctance of party leaders to spell out the details of how they will achieve their targets; according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Lib Dems have been the most forthcoming, but even though have only shown where 26% of their projected savings would be found. Against this background, there has been little talk of environmental issues at national level. This could be read as sensible prioritisation: the economy must be repaired first, before the government can turn its attention to climate change policy (which will continue to dominate the environmental agenda). But current commitments mean that emissions reductions cannot simply be ignored.
Chickens will quickly come home to roost as the new parliament begins to reflect on what drove their predecessors to vote overwhelmingly for the Climate Change Act, which introduces the only legally enforceable national emissions targets in the world. Not only does this commit the country to a reduction of 80% in carbon dioxide emissions (from 1990 levels) by 2050, but the first in a series of carbon budgets promises a target of 34% reductions by 2020. Since it is almost certain that the target will be missed, will we be witness to the interesting sight of the government prosecuting itself? Perhaps politicians might use this as a cautionary tale when setting policies: they should avoid gesture politics, and not pluck figures out of thin air. But unfortunately, the contagion has already spread throughout the EU, with the whole bloc now being signed up to the glib target of 20% reduction in emissions and 20% of energy from renewable resources by 2020.
The three main parties have very similar policies on climate change and energy. They will all be bound by the Climate Change Act, but Labour explicitly states in its manifesto the target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050; the Lib Dems trump this with a 100% target. All three are committed to the building of new coal-fired power stations only if carbon capture and storage is part of the package. Both Labour and Conservative parties are looking to facilitate the building of new nuclear power stations, while the Lib Dems remain opposed to nuclear power. All parties make some commitment to encouraging home insulation itself a worthwhile objective by providing grants which would then be repaid via the cost savings.
This sounds fine, but it represents yet more public expenditure which would only be repaid over a long period. Only the Labour party promises 'green' jobs: 400,000 to be created by 2015. Presumably, many of these would be relatively short term, to insulate established homes or install small-scale renewable energy. Overall, the experience of Spain might prove to be a lesson, with green jobs being expensive to create and replacing only a proportion of the conventional jobs lost. Other relevant policies cover transport, with the Lib Dems being the most pro-railway and anti-car, but only Labour supporting a third runway at Heathrow. There also remains an enthusiasm for electric cars, which can really only be seen as a demonstration project for many years to come. To make any sense, they not only have some way further to go in development terms, but they must also be charged from a low-carbon electricity generating network, which will be some time in coming. Overall, climate change policy will cost large amounts of money. However the instruments and mechanisms are dressed up emissions trading, Renewables Obligation, feed-in tariffs etc they come down to costs which ultimately will be borne by individual consumers, taxpayers and voters.
That fact does not seem to have filtered down fully to the man or woman in the street. But as the next government struggles to minimise damage to public services while making the necessary cost cuts, and tries to minimise voter upset with the taxes rises it introduces, it will find it increasingly difficult to make a convincing case that yet more pain is needed to meet emissions targets. There will be hard choices. A reliable power supply or low-carbon electricity generation? Meeting emissions reduction targets or maintaining funding for health and education? Ultimately, politicians will have to regard current commitments as negotiable rather that in set in stone.
This would not be unprecedented. Already, Kevin Rudd's government in Australia has had to put on hold the introduction of its own emissions reduction scheme, following Senate opposition. A period of reflection on green policies would be appropriate for whoever wins the next election.
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