There are only 15 days left until the 2015 General Election. The party manifestos have been polished and published for media and voter scrutiny. Issues such as the NHS and the deficit are dominating the headlines, so it’s easy for environmental policies to slip under the radar. But with the Green Party’s growing membership, and their inclusion in the recent party leader’s debate, have the main parties felt the pressure to up the ante on their green policies?
The current coalition has done little to live up to its claim to be “the greenest government ever”. That gives the Labour Party an opportunity to expose the failings of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and offer voters more. However, despite supplementing their 86-page manifesto with a separate Green Plan, Labour offers some promising ideas but little in the way of green ambition.
Energy and Climate Change
The manifesto’s main environmental concern is undoubtedly the energy market and climate change. That is perhaps unsurprising, given that Ed Miliband was the first Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change when DECC was created in 2008, and his 19 months in post certainly brought the issue greater prominence. Labour’s unqualified acceptance that climate change is a problem that needs dealing with clearly differentiates them from the messages coming out from UKIP and (to a lesser extent) the Tories.
Labour’s most striking commitment is a legal target for decarbonising Britain’s electricity supply by 2030. Onshore wind and solar PV are mentioned as target technologies, but few details on how they might be supported. Perhaps that reflects a continuing trust in market mechanisms to minimise the costs of decarbonisation in a technology-neutral way .
Despite the decarbonisation pledge, there appears to be a commitment to fossil fuels. Labour wants to create an Energy Security Board to oversee energy production: its proposed remit includes not just renewables and nuclear, but also the cheerfully alliterative ‘green gas’ and ‘clean coal’. Labour would also allow fracking, but only within ‘a robust environmental and regulatory regime’, to ensure drinking water sources are protected and prevent exploration in National Parks and protected areas. The party would also support North Sea oil and gas, hit by low oil prices, by providing more certainty on tax rates.
Squaring these fossil-friendly policies with a decarbonisation agenda means placing a lot of trust in carbon capture and storage. Perhaps it’s just as well that Labour would introduce a new climate change adaptation plan, and prioritise flood prevention through a new Infrastructure Commission.
Plans for energy generation are complemented by a commitment to replace the failed Green Deal with a million interest-free loans for home energy improvements. For those on low incomes, 200,000 households a year will be ‘made warm’, something which will presumably be done through various energy efficiency measures. Labour also commits to a decency standard for privately rented properties, with a target of ensuring landlords bring them up to a minimum energy performance standard of ‘C’ by 2027.
Internationally, they promise to put climate change at the heart of foreign policy, which is important with December’s climate Summit in Paris also looming. A Labour delegation fronted by John Prescott (who led the delegation for the Kyoto Protocol) appears likely to have rather different negotiating aims from the Conservatives. According to the manifesto, Labour wants an ‘ambitious agreement’, which would be strengthened every five years if scientific assessment stipulates further progress is needed. Their aim is net zero global emissions in the second half of this century, and notably a deal which puts greater onus on richer countries.
Green Grade: B. There are some challenging targets and positive language, but Labour’s apparent enthusiasm for fossil fuels seems to be in tension with its climate change goals.
The Labour manifesto promises big changes in the way transport decisions are made. A National Infrastructure Commission would be created to assess, recommend and monitor proposals. There’s also a promise to devolve more transport resources and powers to the English regions to enable them to influence bus route and fares, and to integrate bus, rail and tram ticketing. A two-tiered approach to national and local transport networks may be logical in terms of addressing the issue over different scales, but also gives rise to the potential for conflict.
Rail gets the most column inches, with pledges of continued support for HS2 and legislation to allow public sector operators to take on rail lines. Rail fares would be frozen for a year, future fare rises capped and passengers guaranteed the cheapest available ticket. However, there are no commitments to new trains and lines, and the only promise of new transport investment is in roads – whether new strategic roads or action to address neglected local ones. A ‘swift decision’ is promised on expanding airport capacity in the South East, but there’s no indication of what that decision might be. Cycling gets only a small and nebulous mention – Labour will promote it.
Green Grade: C. The proposals on buses and integration might give more areas access to public transport that approaches the quality and convenience of London’s, while controls on fares should boost train travel. However, there’s no new investment in public transport, nothing for cyclists and nothing to deter carbon-intensive travel.
When it comes to issues surrounding use of land, the main topic of discussion is homebuilding. Labour is committed to building at least 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, an ambitious if somewhat distant target. Aside from a mention of garden cities, there is no indication as to where homes will be built. Apparently this is something that communities will be given the power to decide, but Labour hasn’t explained what will happen if communities simply oppose local housebuilding. The green belt will continue to be protected, with a policy for ensuring brownfield sites are considered first.
Labour is committed to making better use of existing housing. Local authorities are to be given powers to reduce the number of empty homes, including a Council Tax hike for long-term empty properties.
Labour promises to keep forests in public ownership, and promote access to green spaces in local planning.
Green Grade: D. A focus on making use of empty homes should help to minimise the land that needs to be built on. However, there are no clear commitments to minimising the environmental impact of new development.
Pollution and Conservation
Although barely mentioned in the main party manifesto, Labour’s Green Plan reveals their environmental protection proposals. Air pollution would be addressed by ‘giving local authorities the powers they need, backed up by a national framework’, alongside a strategy to meet EU targets and the introduction of low emission zones. A 25 year plan for the recovery of nature, is proposed, aiming to empower communities to protect the environment and to reverse the decline of pollinators.
Water quality and environmentally-friendly land management would be the focus of changes to how Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding is distributed; alongside a new primary sustainability duty for the water industry this would provide welcome encouragement for catchment-based approaches to water management.
Labour would go ahead with a marine protected area around the Pitcairn Islands and progress plans for other overseas territory protected areas. In UK waters, Labour would establish an ‘ecologically coherent’ network of Marine Conservation Zones, but there is little detail of what this might mean for the scaled-back network already proposed. A reassessment of fishing quotas also gets a mention.
Green Grade: C. Labour signals some ambitious intentions but is short on specifics.
Waste and Resources
The manifesto contains no mention of recycling targets, residual waste treatment, litter, fly-tipping or other waste crime at all. However, the Green Plan offers a Stern-style ‘review of resource security’, and signals Labour’s intent to create long-term demand for recycled material. While better than nothing, it smacks of kicking the issue into the long grass.
Green Grade: E. Perhaps Labour got the wrong end of the stick about what having zero waste policies was supposed to mean…
Other Notable Policies
Labour is also looking to beef up the Green Investment Bank by giving it borrowing powers. This would give the GIB access to more resources, but there are no indications regarding whether they might look to alter the banks investment policies, which are currently delivering some questionable projects.
Labour indicates that it expects its policies to create a million new green jobs over the next decade.
Green Grade: C Despite taking two bites at the green cherry, there are few welcome surprises from Labour. The commitments on climate change are positive but predictable, and the measures on transport seem to focus more on controlling fares than achieving environmental outcomes. The proposals on CAP and marine conservation sound encouraging, but short on reassuring details or targets. However, the omission of anything concrete on waste is disappointing, and overall the party has painted itself a pretty pale shade of green.
Read our other manifesto analyses: