How the UK is better handling climate politics

By Nick Parry
PhD student, Climate & Energy College, University of Melbourne

Watching the UK election campaign, Australians may look at how climate politics has played out there and wonder why it had to be so toxic down under.

Brexit may loom large over the upcoming UK election, but climate change is becoming increasingly prominent in the campaign. Over a quarter of voters now rank the environment and climate change among their top three concerns, placing it behind only Brexit, health and the economy.

The major parties have responded to these increased concerns over climate change with some significant commitments that will build on existing long-term targets. The UK has already pledged to close its remaining coal-fired power plants by 2025, and recently became the first major economy to legislate a 2050 net-zero emissions target, beating the French to it by a matter of hours.

What are the Parties promising?

The Conservative Party will retain the 2050 net-zero target, which it plans to meet through investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Offshore wind is a focus with capacity expected to increase five-fold by 2030, and £9.2 billion will be spent on energy efficiency measures. The Conservatives will also extend the moratorium on fracking.

The Labour Party has made climate change a headline issue throughout the campaign as it tries to steer the conversation away from Brexit. The Party has promised to create one million jobs as part of a “new green deal”, which will see low-emissions technologies (renewables and nuclear) generating 90 per cent of the UK’s electricity by 2030. New investment will be funded by an £11 billion windfall tax on oil and gas companies.

A pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030 made at the Labour Party conference in September was watered down following pressure from the unions, although it still plans to “achieve the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030”.

Given the possibility of another hung parliament, smaller parties may play an important role in driving future climate policy. The Scottish National Party is focussed on targets for Scotland, pledging to decarbonise Scotland’s electricity sector by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2045.

The Liberal Democrats have pledged to reach net-zero by 2045 and have renewables generating 80% of the UK’s electricity by 2030 (up from a little over 30% currently).

Even Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which has exhibited scepticism about climate change in the past, has accepted the net-zero target, albeit under the proviso that special assistance is provided to Northern Ireland.

There are obvious questions about the gap between long-term targets and the near-term policy commitments from all parties, but from an Australian perspective, it is notable that the debate is focussed on the response to climate change, rather than whether it is real.

Whereas the issue has become a proxy in Australia’s culture war, political parties in the UK are competing to prove their climate credentials.

Why is the UK so different to Australia on this issue?

There have been many parallels in climate politics between Australia and the UK. Both were regarded as laggards in the 1990s and early 2000s, before the political salience of the issue spiked in the mid-2000s. Political parties on the left and right responded accordingly in both countries.

In the UK, David Cameron assumed the leadership of the opposition Conservatives in 2005 and vowed to lead the “greenest government ever”. With the Greens also gaining support, the Labour Government was in danger of being outflanked on both the left and the right. The Labour Government under Tony Blair responded with the Climate Change Act (2008), which legislated a world’s-first 80% emissions reduction target by 2050 (since updated to net-zero).

In Australia, both parties took an emissions trading scheme to the 2007 election, with the Labor Party’s stronger policy positions a factor in its eventual victory.

However, as the political salience of the issue ebbed away again towards the end of the decade, policy momentum was lost. David Cameron became the UK Prime Minister in 2010, but by 2013 he reportedly demanded that his government “get rid of all the green crap”. There was a series of policy reversals as the national budget took precedence over climate change, but the debate never turned toxic like it has in Australia.

Four related factors explain why this is the case. First, fossil fuel interests do not have the influence in the UK that they have in Australia. Although the UK was once described as ‘an island of coal on a sea of gas’, it has been a net-importer of both resources for many years. Australia, on the other hand, is one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels.

Second is the absence of climate change deniers amongst the senior ranks of the major parties. There have certainly been climate change deniers, and different levels of support for climate change policy, within the UK parliament, but unlike Australia, they never obtained positions of real leadership.

Third, policy design in the UK was more robust. The UK’s Climate Change Act remains one the most ambitious pieces of climate legislation ever implemented. Not only did it establish a legally binding 2050 target with five-yearly carbon budgets, but it also created the expert Committee on Climate Change, which provides policy recommendations and holds the government to account. Australia’s policy mechanisms were never as durable and were dismantled following the election of the Coalition Government in 2013.

Fourth, the UK’s membership of the EU has driven the UK’s ambition, with EU laws having a particular impact on clean energy. The EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive has hastened the end of coal-fired electricity generation, and the Renewable Energy Directive contributed to increased levels of investment in solar and wind.

Australians can therefore watch the UK election knowing that the result is not a zero-sum game for the climate.  There are certainly real differences between the major parties, and the UK has much work to do, but the campaign may point to a better way to do climate politics.

Banner image: Conservative Party leader & Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the leader's debate in Manchester, England on 19 November, 2019. Source: Getty Images

The University of Melbourne is livestreaming a Q+A roundtable, Britain has voted … now what?. Join Professor Philomena Murray, Associate Professor Timothy Lynch and Dr Tom Daly, along with host Annika Smethurst, as they break down the UK’s general election result – and look at the implications for Brexit, Europe and the world. We want to hear from you with your questions and comments on  Facebook LiveTwitter Periscope or YouTube Live  – so join us online on Tuesday 17 December 2019 between 6-7pm AEDT.


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