The State of Sustainability in UK Politics
As a political geek, I’ve been following the UK’s party conference season as avidly as usual. My theory is that the content of the Leaders’ speeches are the true measure of commitment of each political party to the Sustainability agenda. After all, it doesn’t matter what is discussed earnestly on the fringes, if it doesn’t penetrate the Leader’s speech then it can hardly be a true priority.
The problem with this theory is that the shadow of Brexit has dominated these speeches over recent years, so I thought I’d add in a brief summary of other notable conference commitments. As usual I will try my best to be non-partisan, but I must declare my membership of the Liberal Democrats. Speaking of which, first up was:
Cable talked quite a lot about climate change and green issues; most of it expounding the Lib Dems’ achievements in the Coalition Government, expressing fears for some of those achievements under Tory rule and concerns over Brexit (noting the significant overlap between Euroscepticism and climate change denial in UK politics). He made a clear forward commitment – “Liberal Democrats will always fight for the green agenda” – but the speech lacked any more concrete proposals.
This was an opportunity missed, as the Lib Dems had earlier agreed at target of net-zero emissions by 2050 and adopted a plan which would take us 93% of the way there. A simple reference to this policy would have lifted Cable’s speech way up the green-o-meter.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour
Corbyn was welcomed to conference like a messiah after having done much better than expected in the year’s snap general election. His speeches have been steadily improving in delivery and clarity and this one followed that trend, with the unfortunate exception of the climate change section. It started with a pop at Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement and ended with the following statement:
Action on climate change is a powerful spur to investment in the green industries and jobs of the future. So long as it is managed as part of a sustainable transition.
That passage has bothered me ever since: firstly because it isn’t strictly speaking a commitment and, secondly, that caveat – what does it mean? Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had given a vastly stronger commitment to making the UK a world leader in decarbonisation in his speech two days previously, so why the prevarication now? It could just be poor drafting or it could have been a compromise after a behind the scenes row (Union objections, perhaps?), but, whatever, it was a bit odd.
McDonnell made a couple of other concrete commitments including to progress the Swansea Tidal Lagoon and a declaration on nationalising the energy system which appeared to go beyond the Party’s manifesto pledge to nationalise the distribution system. Whether the UK’s increasingly distributed renewable energy generation could or should be nationalised will no doubt be a debate for the future. Shadow Business and Energy Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey reaffirmed the party’s commitment to “take the radical action needed to tackle climate change, and ensure that 60% of our energy comes from low carbon or renewable sources by 2030. To support projects like Swansea tidal lagoon and Moorside nuclear plant.” But there was noticeably less concrete new policy detail than the other main parties.
Theresa May was buffeted by bad luck during her speech – a ‘prankster’ handing her a P45, letters falling off the backdrop and a persistent cough ruined her chances to stamp her authority on her increasingly fractious party. The Sustainability agenda didn’t feature too much: one reference on Britain leading the campaign on climate change, one on it being a major global challenge and a mention of economic opportunities in EVs and renewables, but, like Corbyn, nothing in the way of an explicit forward commitment. One of the few announcements was an energy price cap, once derided by the Tories, but now Tory policy. How that impacts the clean energy revolution remains to be seen.
There was some interesting stuff in the rest of the agenda, with Michael Gove and Boris Johnson making right-of-centre cases for post-Brexit low carbon/sustainable British economy. Whether you take those at face value or not will depend on your view of the two Brexiteers, but Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark outlined some much more concrete ideas around clean technology including CCS, smart meters and a new Faraday Battery Institute. Unfortunately these were overshadowed in the press by Gove’s much more mundane, but headline friendly, announcement of a plastic bottle deposit scheme.
With just 1.6% of the vote at this year’s general election, I include the Green Party’s co-leaders Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas as much for completeness as anything else. Bartley did the big set piece this year but, due to a complete lack of interest from the media, I’ve had to work off the transcript. In brief, big on climate/Sustainability risks, the usual attacks on fracking and nuclear power, and big on a low carbon vision for the future. That vision was much better and passionately put than the other leaders, but, like them, there wasn’t much on how the Greens would make that a reality in practice. I make that criticism as we are now in the transition zone and pragmatic policies are crucial.
So from the big three party leaders, pretty thin gruel – plenty of acknowledgements of the importance of tackling climate change and the opportunities in the emerging low carbon agenda, but precious little from the leaders in terms of forward commitment, Cable edging it by pledging something for the future, no matter how generalised. Having said that, all three parties were saying much more interesting and important things outside the leader’s set pieces, I just wish they could have been acknowledged by the big cheeses.
In my opinion, the biggest empty goal missed was Theresa May’s. May is struggling to find a distinct theme for her time in office, her popularity amongst younger voters, who rate climate change as a top priority, is woeful, and her big conference policy announcements turned out to be Corbyn-very-lite. If she had gone all in for the green economy instead, she could have sold it to the right-of-centre as an engine of economic growth post-Brexit (as per Gove and Johnson’s arguments), and sold it to the left/youth vote as “doing the right thing for the future”. And she has nothing to lose.
I’ve long argued that hearing such arguments from the centre-right is more noteworthy than from the centre/centre left as the former has traditionally been more sceptical. The growing commitment of the sensible-right creates a cross-party momentum which only the far fringes of UK politics opposes. Compare and contrast this consensus with, say, the polarisation of Sustainability opinion across the US political spectrum, and you can see why the UK is leading the G20 on decarbonisation.