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The UK general election – climate and money

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Climate Answers will comment on what the parties are saying they would do, their policy statements and the manifestos once they appear. Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have all made major statements in the last five weeks: Labour and Tories on energy and the Lib Dems on transport.

The UK general election campaign has begun formally, though, in practice, it has been well underway all year. Many opinion polls suggest that there will be a hung parliament, so we won’t know who will form the next government even after the election, and there might be another election in the autumn. Climate Answers is not politically affiliated and won’t say how anyone should vote. However, we will comment on what the parties are saying they would do, their policy statements and the manifestos once they appear. Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have all made major statements in the last five weeks: Labour and Tories on energy and the Lib Dems on transport.

However, the most significant recent announcement was not specifically about climate, but about money. Since finance is central to making the low carbon transition, and all governments desperately need more of it, money is central to climate policy. It is often said – by political opponents and even some supporters – that Gordon Brown would be a better finance minister to the World than Prime Minister of the UK. Last year, the G20 meeting in London was significant in averting an even worse global recession. Yesterday, Brown said that the large economies were close to agreeing a global tax on banks, which could raise billions of pounds a year. The UK, Germany and France now support such a tax, and Brown said that he hoped the US would come on board He accepted that it is unlikely that there will be agreement at the next G20 meeting in Toronto in June, but suggested that it could be agreed at the meeting in South Korea in November. A tax on bankers would be that rare creature: a popular tax. It is often called the ‘Robin Hood tax’, because it takes from the rich to give to the poor. In fact, all progressive tax, including income tax, are Robin Hood taxes. However, even people (that is, voters) who are not currently rich may hope to become so one day, whereas most people have no desire to become bankers. Therefore, taxing banking transactions seems like an obvious move for politicians and some of the billions raised should be used to control the climate.

It is not hard to identify suitable ways to spend this money and energy efficiency should be top of the list. The Labour government published Warm Homes, Greener Homes: a Strategy for Household Energy Management in early March. Later in March, the Conservatives published Rebuilding Security, their energy policy document. These are summarised in Labour and Conservative energy documents (March 2010). At the moment, there are no major ideological differences between Labour and Tories on energy, though the Conservatives say that they would turn Labour’s industrial energy tax into a carbon tax, introduce a floor price for carbon produced in electricity generation and even intervene in the generation and retail market if necessary. However, both parties are in favour of nuclear and CCS. The Tories actually take a stronger line on CCS – they say that there will be no new coal power stations without CCS for the whole capacity, whereas Labour says there must be CCS on only part of the capacity. Both are also in favour of renewables, though Conservative local councils more often reject planning applications than do Labour or Lib Dem ones.

Climate policy must cover not only what is called energy policy, but also transport policy, since transport uses energy. Yesterday, the Liberal Democrats  set out radical and ambitious plans to revitalise the railways by improving and reopening railway lines and stations. They say that this would lead to the:

… biggest rail expansion since the Victorians.

The party would set up a fund of nearly £3bn, from which councils and transport authorities could get money to pay for rail improvement and expansion projects. The money would come from cuts to the major roads budget. The Lib Dems are firmly opposed to any new runways, so are stronger on airports than the Conservatives, who say no to expansion at Heathrow, but not at all airports.

Therefore, the Lib Dems have excellent policies on transport. However, they are less strong on energy, since they remain opposed to nuclear power. This is mainly on cost rather than environmental grounds. Against this, they are the only one of the three large parties to say no to expansion of the UK’s nuclear weapons, Trident. The cost of this “upgrade” is now said to be around £95 billion – it goes up a couple of billion a week. This will do nothing to help troops in Afghanistan and will make it difficult to argue against non-nuclear weapons states such as Iran seeking to acquire nuclear bombs. Yet both Labour and Tories say that Trident should be excluded from the defence review promised for after the election.

Of course, there are other parties in the UK. The SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Green Party are strong in many ways, though remaining anti-nuclear. The UK Independence Party exists to try to get the UK out of the EU, which would be a disaster for climate policy. UKIP also questions whether climate change is human-induced. The British National Party may have opinions or policies on climate and energy; I could visit their website to find out, but cannot bring myself to do so. They are racist and fascist, so deserve no further consideration.

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Climate change is the most serious issue ever to have faced humanity. Rightly, it is now high on the public, political, media and business agendas. However, too much of the discussion is still about what we should not be doing or what we should be against. There is not enough discussion or information on solutions - what we can and should do to minimise dangerous climate change, and what should be done to make us not only safer and more secure, but also richer and happier.


Stephen Tindale photoStephen Tindale (29 March 1963 – 1 July 2017) was a British environmentalist who was Executive Director of Greenpeace UK from 2000 to 2005. He was Director of The Alvin Weinberg Foundation, co-founder of the organisation Climate Answers, Associate Fellow at the Centre for European Reform and co-author of Repowering Communities with Prashant Vaze.