UK climate consensus fails to convince green groups

Fracking, aviation and Brexit spark heated debate at Greener Britain Hustings – which does not win over environmentalists

Caroline Lucas and Liz Truss debate at Greener Britain hustings (Pic: Green Alliance webcast)

Caroline Lucas and Liz Truss debate at Greener Britain hustings (Pic: Green Alliance webcast)

By Megan Darby

The UK has a world-leading Climate Change Act, committing future governments to a series of carbon budgets and an 80%+ emissions cut by 2050.

In the run-up to this May’s general election, leaders of the three main political parties signed a joint pledge to continue pushing the climate agenda.

You could be forgiven, with this level of consensus, for considering a debate on the environment redundant.

Yet Greener Britain Hustings in London on Monday, hosted by the Green Alliance campaign group, revealed some parties were altogether more enthusiastic about tackling climate change than others.

With heated exchanges on fracking, airport expansion and the prospect of a British exit of the EU (Brexit), #GreenerBritain even started trending on twitter. (“I knew something was going on when porn started popping up in my twitter feed,” one social media watcher observed afterwards.)

And the audience, comprising staff and members of green groups, came out of the room less optimistic about the environmental outlook than they were at the start.

It was an authoritative line-up: Liz Truss, the Conservative environment secretary; Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary; Caroline Flint, shadow energy secretary for Labour; and Caroline Lucas, the country’s only Green MP.

Notable by their absence were two parties that could hold the balance of power in an uncertain election.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), enthusiastic promoter of renewable energy and (Scotland’s) North Sea oil alike, is forecast to take the majority of Scotland’s 59 seats. That leaves Labour unlikely to reach a majority without SNP support.

Meanwhile, the Eurosceptic UKIP, which wants to repeal the Climate Change Act, is snapping at Conservative heels.

Whatever the influence of smaller parties, it is Labour or the Conservatives that will lead any coalition.

The Liberal Democrats, currently in the coalition government, are likely to be a diminished force. Voters have not forgiven them for ditching a promise not to raise university tuition fees the moment they got into power.

Despite polling 11% recently nationwide, the Greens struggle to garner the critical mass of support needed to win seats under the first-past-the-post voting system.

Lucas, who has positioned herself as the green conscience of the House of Commons, is not guaranteed to hold onto her Brighton constituency.

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That is the lie of the land, but what do the parties have to say on the environment?

Asked at the outset what was the most critical environmental issue facing the country, three said “climate change”. They then each squeezed in another “most critical” issue closer to home, but that’s politicians for you.

With an international climate deal due in Paris this December, “the climate crisis is the overwhelming priority,” said Lucas.

Labour’s Flint said it was a national security issue, citing the exceptional floods that hit parts of England last year.

For Davey, climate change diplomacy “is probably the most significant thing” in the next year, to bring other countries on board with a global deal.

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Truss, the Conservative, equivocated. “One of the difficulties in the question you ask is trying to unpick the environment, because the fact is it is an interdependent system and we need to achieve all of it,” she said.

Air pollution and biodiversity are equally important, she argued, hailing a budget decision to establish the world’s biggest marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands.

Together with plans for a tidal lagoon energy scheme, it was a green element in a predominantly brown budget the previous week. There was a fuel duty freeze, tax breaks for North Sea oil producers and no use of the c-word.

When Truss was appointed to the environment brief last July, the primary emotion from green groups was relief that her climate sceptic predecessor, Owen Paterson, had been kicked out.

Looking for all the world like she wanted to be somewhere else, Truss gave defensive and increasingly terse answers that did little to win over the room.

Flint’s was a more energetic performance, albeit vague on some of the details.

It was the two speakers least likely to have any power in the next government that showed most engagement with the issues.

As an outsider, Lucas was the only politician prepared to oppose fracking for shale gas and airport expansion.

She laid into the main parties for “completely un-joined-up” thinking on climate change and called for a “new architecture” to spread the climate agenda across government.

“What we often have is the other parties on the same page when it comes to fine words on climate change but a different matter when it comes to the workings of departmental politics,” she said.

When asked whether she had written to her pension fund asking them to divest from fossil fuels, Lucas leapt out of her chair. “Yes!” (Truss, who used to work for Shell, gave the short answer: “No.”)

Brexit ‘nightmare’

Davey was equally animated describing the “nightmare scenario” of a Conservative majority and referendum on quitting the European Union. (Under pressure from UKIP, the Conservatives have promised to hold an in-out referendum if elected.)

That would diminish the UK’s influence in climate talks and harm low carbon investment, Davey argued.

He went red in the face defending his energy efficiency policies and spoke of fighting “day in, day out” to protect onshore wind power from attack by Conservative colleagues.

On divestment, he said funds “must divest from coal” but oil and gas would be needed for decades. Davey also welcomed moves by the Bank of England and others to investigate financial risks linked to climate change.

Did the debate change anybody’s mind? Green Alliance, the organiser, chose not to poll the audience – mainly comprising staff and members of green groups – on their voting intentions.

Instead, it asked whether they were optimistic the next government would “make progress on the environment”. Before the debate, only 36% agreed. After the debate, this dropped to 30%.

Compared to the US or Australia, where political debate persists over the reality of climate change, it was an enlightened exchange.

But if you thought the UK’s work on climate change was done, think again.

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