The UK will once again head to the polls on 12 December, marking the third general election since 2015 as politicians struggle to set out a clear course for the nation’s departure from the EU.
While Brexit is still the biggest talking point, climate change has also risen to the top of the political agenda, with the major parties making ever-more ambitious – and competing – pledges to cut emissions and plant trees.
The UK’s climate discourse has undergone a significant shift since the last election due to a series of factors that include “strikes” by Greta Thunberg-inspired school children, Extinction Rebellion protests, summer heatwaves and a series of landmark reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Reflecting this shift, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have already set out more ambitious net-zero targets than the ruling Conservatives, who committed to the world-leading 2050 goal earlier this year.
In a symbolic gesture, Labour has placed its strategy for a “green industrial revolution” at the top of its manifesto, while the Green Party has promised a “green new deal” that will transform the UK’s economy.
The Green Party was the first to release a manifesto (pdf), titled “If Not Now, When?” on 19 November. It was followed by the Liberal Democrats (pdf) on 20 November, Labour (pdf) on 21 November, Plaid Cymru (pdf) on 22 November and the Scottish National Party (pdf) on 27 November.
Relative newcomers the Brexit Party has released a manifesto, although given the group’s singular focus on leaving the EU, besides a pledge to plant trees, there is not much detail about its environmental policies.
The Conservative party was the last of the major parties to release a manifesto (pdf), pledging to “Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential” on 24 November.
Ukip, which is only standing a few dozen candidates in this year’s election, has also released a manifesto, which is typically light on climate action.
Following the publication of similar summaries for the 2015 and 2017 elections, Carbon Brief has again compiled the most significant climate and energy-related pledges made by the main parties. The entries are all direct quotes, although some have been abbreviated and others are separated with semicolons to indicate they are from different sections of the manifestos.
This interactive grid – and accompanying article – will be updated as more manifestos are published.
One of the most striking elements of the manifestos is the language being employed to describe climate issues.
Every one of the three major national parties makes some reference to not just climate change, but a “climate emergency”, as does the Scottish National Party (SNP). Labour and the Liberal Democrats go a step further by also mentioning a “climate crisis”, with Labour’s document referring to a “climate catastrophe”.
This ties in with analysis Carbon Brief released earlier this year, looking at how climate language has been shifting in parliament, which revealed an uptick in mentions of climate “emergency”, “crisis” and “catastrophe” during 2019.
What makes the language used all the more striking is the fact that in 2017, when the country was going through another Brexit-dominated general election, climate change barely made it onto the political agenda.
At the time, when Carbon Brief produced its piece on manifesto pledges for that election, it was noted that: “Despite the hopes of some groups, climate change has barely featured as an election issue so far”.
This is demonstrated in a fairly simplistic way by the chart below, which shows how mentions of “climate” by the major political parties have changed over the past three elections.
The prominence of climate in the political discourse this year was exemplified by Channel 4 News hosting the first-ever leaders’ TV debate focusing entirely on the topic. Neither Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson nor Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage chose to attend the debate and were replaced by melting blocks of ice.
Despite the prominence of climate issues in most parties’ election pledges, however, there are still many policy areas on which they diverge significantly.
Both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth placed the Conservatives at the bottom of their rankings of climate and nature commitments, with the latter describing Tory policies as “generally less ambitious, entirely absent, or in some cases activity damaging”.
In the following sections Carbon Brief will compare specific, key policy areas between parties.
When independent advisers the Committee on Climate Change released their net-zero report in May, it triggered a cascade of pledges by political parties vying to outdo each other on climate targets.
A month after the guidance was published, the Conservative government under Theresa May committed to becoming the first major economy to set such a goal, laying out how the UK could reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
This commitment is prominent in the Conservative manifesto, sitting at the top alongside pledges to control immigration, put more police officers on the streets and provide extra funding to the NHS.
Despite being a world-leading target when it was first set, many activists and scientists at the time said it was not ambitious enough, given the scale of the threat posed by climate change.
The CCC itself said it had been deliberately conservative in its assessment of what was feasible, but noted that the 2050 target was “the earliest to be credibly deliverable alongside other government objectives”.
Nevertheless, opposition parties have staked out net-zero as a key battleground. The Greens have promised a “Green New Deal” that will “get us on track to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2030”.
Labour also considered a 2030 target, with members at the party’s autumn conference in Brighton backing a motion to beat the government’s target by 20 years. The “30 by 2030” report was commissioned, outlining a “fast-track” strategy for a Labour government to decarbonise the country’s energy system within just 12 years.
However, in its manifesto Labour has, ultimately, settled for a less radical target, pledging to:
“Develop the recommendations of our ‘30 by 2030’ report to put the UK on track for net-zero-carbon energy system within the 2030s – and go faster if credible pathways can be found [and] deliver nearly 90% of electricity and 50% of heat from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030.”
According to reports, this “softening” came after unions raised concerns about risk to jobs and industry.
The Liberal Democrats have also set out a more ambitious net-zero target than the current government, settling on 2045. This is in line with a call from NGOs, including Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth.
It is also worth noting that despite setting such its 2050 target, the government is currently off track on its legally binding carbon budgets set under the Climate Change Act.
In June, the CCC warned that the country had just 18 months to demonstrate considerable progress on measures from home insulation to transport emissions, otherwise it would face “embarrassment” as host of the next year’s COP26 UN summit. Chris Stark, the CCC’s chief executive, stated a net-zero target “will not magically fix this problem”.
Finally, the Labour manifesto puts down a marker on the technical, but significant question of accounting for – and trying to address – emissions embedded in imported goods and services:
“Over the past three decades, Britain has reduced its emissions at the expense of domestic industry by offshoring production. This is an accounting trick, not a solution. It does not protect the climate, is unfair to other countries and it damages jobs and communities at home. Labour will take full responsibility for our carbon footprint instead of passing the buck.”
Labour says it will tell the CCC to assess emission of UK imports, as well as products made in the country, and recommend policies to address them. [The government already publishes consumption-based emissions accounts that include imports, while the CCC looked at how to address them as part of its advice on reaching net-zero by 2050.]
One issue that has received extensive media coverage is the number of trees that each party plans to plant across the UK in the coming decades.
Even the Brexit Party, which has virtually no other mention of the environment in its list of policies, says it will embark on a tree-planting programme. There were even reports that leader Nigel Farage was hoping to enlist US president Donald Trump to help lead a global campaign on this issue.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats kick-started the afforestation arms race, with a target of planting at least 30m and 60m trees each year, respectively. [The current rate of afforestation in the UK is somewhat less than 10,000 hectares (ha) per year, equivalent to some 15-23m trees, depending on how densely they are planted.]
In its manifesto, the Conservative party says it will reach “an additional 75,000 acres of trees a year by the end of the next parliament”, paid for with a new £640m “Nature for Climate fund”. At around 30,000ha per year, this is only slightly more ambitious than current government targets to reach 20,000ha by 2020 and 27,000ha by 2025.
The Liberal Democrats want to introduce a “Nature Act” that “restore[s] the natural environment” with legally binding targets and funding streams of “at least £18bn over five years”. Besides their afforestation pledge, which they say is equivalent to adding a million hectares by 2045 (roughly 40,000ha per year), the party says they will push for the greater use of sustainably harvested wood in construction.
The SNP also commits to raising annual tree planting to 60m, with half of these new trees in Scotland (where the majority of tree planting already takes place). The Green Party has gone slightly higher, aiming for 70m. These goals are equivalent to 40,000ha and 47,000ha per year, respectively, at stocking rates matching the Liberal Democrats.
While Labour’s initial manifesto was vague on its commitment to planting trees, pledging only to embark on “an ambitious programme of tree planting, with both forestry and native woodland species”, it later expanded on this proposal in a separate “Plan for Nature” (pdf).
In this additional manifesto, the party committed to invest £2.5bn over its first term to plant 300m trees, with a target of reaching one billion new trees by 2030, and two billion by 2040. This equates to around 100m each year.
As the chart below shows, this target far exceeds current levels of tree planting, but could be roughly in line with the CCC’s “further ambition” scenario for reaching net-zero by 2050, depending on the stocking rate assumed by Labour.The current and targeted annual rate of afforestation in the UK, hectares per year (shades of black and grey). Committee on Climate Change targets from its net-zero technical report are shown in shades of purple and pledges from the 2019 election manifestos are in party colours. Manifesto targets cover different timeframes and are shown here as annual averages. Pledges set in terms of millions of trees are converted to hectares using a planting rate of 1,500-2,250 trees per hectare. Source: CCC and Carbon Brief analysis of election manifestos. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
The CCC recommends woodland cover should be increased from the current level of 13% of land cover to at least 17%. In its stretch “further ambition” scenario this increases to 19% by 2050.
Its net-zero report also notes that recent progress has been slow. It says “afforestation targets for 20,000 hectares per year across the UK nations…are not being delivered, with less than 10,000 hectares planted on average over the last five year”.
There has been some debate in the press about how feasible the targets being set out by the major parties are. According to the CCC, afforestation rates stood at around 30,000ha per year in the 1980s and “it may be possible to go further”, hence its “further ambition” and “speculative” targets for 47,000-50,000ha per year.
The BBCs “Reality Check” team concluded that “ambitious targets for the UK should not be dismissed out of hand”, while noting there would need to be a significant push, for example, to incentivise farmers to convert their fields into woodland.
Sources of energy
While all the major parties include commitments to renewable energy in their manifestos, they differ significantly in the extent and level of detail.
The Conservative party say it will bring offshore wind capacity up to 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, up from 8.5GW now, and describe this sector in the UK as “world leading”. However, it makes no mention of support for onshore wind or solar.
Both technologies, particularly onshore wind, have significant potential in the UK and enjoy substantial public support, but currently have no clear route to market following planning restrictions and subsidy cuts introduced by the Conservative government, with no auction rounds open to new projects since 2015.
By contrast, Labour’s commitments are far more extensive. As part of its “Green Industrial Revolution”, the party says it will get “nearly 90% of electricity and 50% of heat from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030”, putting the country on a course for “a net-zero-carbon energy system within the 2030s”.
[For comparison, scenarios from the CCC published before the UK’s net-zero target was agreed have electricity that is 58-73% renewable in 2030 and 74-87% low-carbon.]
To reach its 2030 goals, the Labour manifesto promises 7,000 new offshore wind turbines, as well as 2,000 new onshore wind turbines and “enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches”.
This equates to 52GW of offshore wind, 30GW of onshore wind and 35GW of solar energy by 2030, around three times the renewable energy commitment made by the Conservatives. The UK currently has 13.5GW of onshore wind and 13GW of solar power.
These pledges are accompanied by references to supporting nuclear and tidal power, although these are less clear-cut. The Conservative party also say it will back nuclear power, including fusion – a technology that many have pointed out is unlikely to be operational for decades.
The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto also says the party will “remov[e] the Conservatives’ restrictions on solar and wind” and “aim to reach at least 80% renewable electricity in the UK by 2030”. It does not mention nuclear power.
The Green Party say its Green New Deal will lead to 70% of the country’s electricity coming from wind alone by 2030, with solar, geothermal, tidal, hydro and other renewable energies providing “much of the remainder”. It opposes nuclear power.
Plaid Cymru say its “Green Jobs Revolution” will help make Wales “100% self-sufficient in renewable energy by 2030”, while the SNP say it will propose a Green Energy Deal that builds on the 75% of Scotland’s electricity already coming from renewable sources.
All the major parties make it clear they will not support fracking. However, while Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cyrmu and the Greens have all committed to an outright ban, the Conservative party says it has placed a moratorium on the technique and will not allow fracking “unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”.
Several of the manifestos talk in fairly general terms about supporting carbon capture and storage (CCS), with the Conservatives pledging to spend £800m “to build the first fully deployed carbon capture storage cluster by the mid-2020s”.
Labour and the LIberal Democrats also set out specific policies aimed at addressing the fossil fuel industry more broadly. Labour wants to introduce a “windfall tax” on oil and gas companies, raising £11bn to support a “just transition” for workers, “so that the companies that knowingly damaged our climate will help cover the costs”.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats’s manifesto says it will support the UK’s G7 pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 and push other countries to do the same.
As the UK’s highest-emitting sector, efforts to cut emissions from transport will be essential if any of the parties are to stand a chance of attaining net-zero emissions in the coming decades.
Perhaps the most significant transport-related pledge is the date for an end to petrol and diesel car sales. The current date set by the Conservative government is 2040, but NGOs, scientists and the CCC have all emphasised this is too late, especially given the dangerous levels of localised air pollution resulting from road vehicles in many UK cities.
The CCC’s net-zero report concluded that electric vehicles will be cost-saving by 2030, meaning it would be cheaper for the UK economy to switch well before 2040.
In line with this, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens all say they will end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
The Conservative manifesto holds back from such a commitment, saying the party will “consult on the earliest date by which we can phase out the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars”. All the major national parties also make commitments to expanding charging infrastructure to support the transition to electric vehicles.
The Liberal Democrats, Labour, SNP and Green Party all place improved public transport at the heart of their policies, which tend to emphasise a shift towards modes of transport that help bring down both CO2 emissions and air pollution.
While the Conservative party says it will “support clean transport to ensure clean air”, it also commits to a significant £28.8bn chunk of investment in road building.
Aviation has risen up the agenda in recent months, with climate activists such as Greta Thunberg highlighting the disproportionate amount of global emissions coming from planes.
The manifestos all contain positions on the expansion of Heathrow, with both the Conservatives and Labour expressing tentative approval while emphasising the stringent tests that must be passed for the project to go ahead.
The Liberal Democrats oppose the expansion of “Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted and any new airport in the Thames Estuary”, but only the Greens are against all airport expansion.
However, beyond airports there are also some other interesting proposals to limit flying. The Liberal Democrats manifesto sets out a relatively radical proposal to address emissions from flights by targeting “the 15% of individuals who take 70% of flights”, stating the party will:
“Reduce the climate impact of flying by reforming the taxation of international flights to focus on those who fly the most, while reducing costs for those who take one or two international return fights per year.”
The Green Party also calls for action on this group of people, in the form of a “frequent flier levy”, as well as a ban on advertising for flights.
Meanwhile, the SNP says it is “committed to making the Highlands and Islands the world’s first net-zero aviation region by 2040, with trials of low or zero emission flights, including electric planes, starting in 2021”.
It also raises a key point about aviation emissions by stating that they should be accounted for within national emissions and targets.
While the CCC recommended that international aviation and shipping ought to be included in the UK’s net-zero target, the government said when it committed to the goal that it would “continue to leave headroom for emissions from international aviation and shipping in carbon budgets”.
In September, CCC chairman Lord Deben sent a letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps calling for him to formally include these sectors in the government’s target.
The CCC has repeatedly called the government out for inaction on addressing emissions from the UK’s housing stock. In its net-zero report, it said there was “still no serious plan for decarbonising UK heating systems”.
Tackling this issue will mean both retrofitting existing homes across the UK, as well as ensuring that new houses are built to high specifications, thus making them energy efficient and, ideally, “zero carbon”.
There are a range of policies across the manifestos of the major parties that speak to these goals.
Labour pledges to build hundreds of thousands of social houses, with “a tough, new zero-carbon homes standard” that will apply to all new homes.
In zero-carbon buildings, as much energy is generated on-site using renewable technology as is used. A zero-carbon homes policy was first announced under Labour back in 2006, but was scrapped in 2015 by the Conservative government.
Labour also say it will upgrade “almost all” of the UK’s 27m homes to the highest energy-efficiency standards. In the process, the party says the average household energy bill will be reduced £417 per household per year by 2030 and fuel poverty will be “eliminated”.
To achieve its 50% heat decarbonisation target, Labour also says it will roll out technologies including heat pumps, solar hot water and hydrogen, and “invest in district heat networks using waste heat”.
A similarly ambitious set of proposals is offered by the Liberal Democrats. The party says it will set up an “emergency programme” to insulate every home in the UK by 2030, “cutting emissions and fuel bills and ending fuel poverty”.
It also commits to a “zero-carbon heat strategy”, including the phased installation of heat pumps.
Other Liberal Democrat policies include a requirement for all new buildings to be built to a zero-carbon standard by 2021, rising to a more ambitious “passivhaus” standard – resulting in ultra-efficient buildings that require very little energy – by 2025.
The Green Party also pledges to ensure all new homes are built to a passivhaus, or equivalent, standard.
The Conservative party promises to build “at least a million more homes, of all tenures, over the next Parliament – in the areas that really need them”.
It also says it will “help lower energy bills by investing £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals”. However, there is no explicit mention of decarbonising heating, or of zero carbon homes in the manifesto.
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