Sustainability at the Party Conferences
As a political geek, every year I watch the leaders’ speeches from all the major UK political party conferences. And every year I post a summary of the Sustainability content of those speeches, on the grounds that if we are going to create a Sustainable society, the signals had better be there in the leaders’ speeches. Leadership, after all, is key to delivering the step changes we need.
Traditionally the conference season starts with the Liberal Democrats (full disclosure: I’m a party member), but their conference was cancelled in the wake of the death of the Queen, so whatever was in Ed Davey’s speech, and as he once served as energy and climate change minister, it may have been interesting, it’ll have to wait until next time.
So moving swiftly on to Labour, Keir Starmer’s big policy reveal (not just in the ‘green section’, but in the whole speech) was the proposed creation of ‘Great British Energy’ – a publicly owned green energy supply company. This was not only nailing his colours to the green economy mast, but was also clever politics. Starmer had listed ‘nationalising the energy sector’ in his decidedly left wing leadership pitch to the party faithful, before pivoting abruptly to the centre ground, leaving the left screaming betrayal. Nationalisation of the whole energy system would not only have been prohibitively expensive, but, given the net zero pledge, it would involve buying high carbon assets only to destroy them – hardly good value for money. By dint of being a supply company, the GBE plan leaves the way open for generators to innovate and compete to provide cheap low carbon energy – and maintaining access to the grid from small suppliers including householders.
There was plenty more in Starmer’s speech including a target of 100% clean power by 203, doubling Britain’s onshore wind capacity, trebling solar power, quadrupling offshore wind, and investment in tidal, hydrogen, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.
If the well-disciplined Labour conference lacked fireworks, the Conservative Party Conference certainly didn’t. New Prime Minister Liz Truss and her free-market libertarian crew had sent the markets into a tailspin within weeks of taking office, leading to a sudden u-turn mid-conference on one of the key planks of her ‘growth’ agenda – abolishing the 45p tax band. Truss’s enemies scented blood and the conference descended into open warfare, with even ministers briefing against some of her proposals.
So, to the speech… and frankly, it didn’t contain anything very much in the way of policy. However, not far into her monotone boilerplate, two senior Greenpeace executives decided to launch a protest against fracking. This backfired somewhat as the hitherto quiet audience got behind Truss and she perked up, giving her speech much more gusto. As Truss’s inner circle is one of the few pro-fracking cliques in the Conservative, the protestors may have made fracking more likely than not by throwing her a lifeline. As a measure of the fillip they gave her, the notoriously robotic Truss improvised a little by including the two in her list of ‘Anti-growth Coalition’ members alongside Extinction Rebellion (and pretty much everybody else outside the Tufton Street think tanks).
We did get one nod to the Sustainability/Climate agenda:
So we are taking decisive action to reinforce our energy security. We are opening more gas fields in the North Sea and delivering more renewables and nuclear energy. That is how we will protect the great British environment, deliver on our commitment to net zero and tackle climate change.
Yup, hitting net zero by exploiting more fossil fuels – although fracking was noticeably absent, presumably to avoid further blue-on-blue infighting. This is as bad as the token environmental passing mentions of 20 years ago and certainly pales into insignificance in comparison to the commitments of the last three Conservative Prime Ministers.
I must admit I didn’t see the Green Party joint leaders’ speech as it doesn’t get the same coverage as the others, but, amongst long litanies of what is wrong in the world, the key policy pledges were nationalisation of the energy sector, and an emergency tax package on polluting companies and the richest 1% of households to fund a nationwide insulation and renewable energy programme.
So in summary, we got a public energy company proposal from Labour, full nationalisation of energy and taxes on the wealthy from the Greens but just the briefest of brief mentions from the Conservatives. On this measure alone, the fact the latter are in power is rather depressing.