Climate change has featured more prominently in this election campaign than any before, including the first ever televised climate debate featuring the leaders of all the main parties – except Boris Johnson, who has snubbed the invitation. But while the parties’ manifestos contain a range of targets for reaching net zero, the next government must deliver a credible plan to reducing carbon emissions.
Politicians across the spectrum are reflecting a changing public mood on the environment. Asked about the most important issues facing the country, voters currently rank it around fourth – behind only Brexit, healthcare and the economy. At the beginning of the year, it was eighth. Over half of people surveyed say climate change would influence their vote; three-quarters of those under 25.
Shortly after a visit from teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg in May, Parliament voted to declare a ‘climate emergency’. In June, when she was about to exit Number 10, Theresa May used a statutory instrument to change the UK’s legally binding climate target to be net zero by 2050.
But rhetoric is the easy part. So far, Parliament has failed to back it up with action. According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the UK is not on track to meet its previous, less ambitious target of 80% reductions by 2050. Meeting the new target will require rapid transitions in areas including industry, agriculture, transport and housing.
The Conservatives reiterate their commitment to net zero by 2050 but offer precious little detail on how they would accelerate progress to get there. Their manifesto devotes just two pages to climate change, compared to 12 in the Lib Dems’ and 17 in Labour’s. These briefly set out plans for extra investment and doubling R&D spending over the next Parliament, but Conservative targets remain unambitious. Boris Johnson has styled this as a pro-business net zero strategy based on ‘British ingenuity’. But there is little sign of the "very significant changes in policy" the CCC said would be needed to make a 2050 target "credible".
Labour argues that 2050 is not radical enough and says it would reach net zero "within the 2030s". But experts have said that a 2030 target is not credible either. Labour does propose a huge programme of investment – some £250 billion – and says it would force businesses to become greener. But there are major doubts about whether it could implement policies – such as its plan to install insulation, double glazing and heat pumps in almost 27 million homes by 2030 – in such a short timescale, alongside a host of other major projects. The much less-ambitious roll-out of smart meters has been delayed repeatedly. Short of forcing more radical changes in behaviour, for instance by introducing a carbon tax – proposed by the Greens but swerved by the other parties – Labour’s target appears unachievable, although its extra ambition is welcome.
The Lib Dems have committed to net zero by 2045 but with a proposed a 10-year emergency programme to accelerate transition to renewables and insulate homes, backed up with £30 billon of investment. They have also proposed re-establishing a department of climate change and creating a Cabinet-level chief secretary for sustainability in the Treasury.
Rather than quibbling over the net zero end date, Parliament needs to act. First, the next government needs to make delivering a net zero plan a top priority. The level of change required across multiple sectors will demand huge amounts of resources and political capital. It will not succeed if climate change remains a second-tier issue, as it has been for UK governments so far.
Second, the government needs to agree a net zero plan. This plan will have to pull off a tricky balancing act: reducing emissions as quickly as possible while minimising costs to the economy, spreading the burden equitably across different parts of the population and commanding support from MPs and voters. The politics of this won’t be easy. The UK has not raised fuel duty since 2011; when President Macron tried to do so last year he was met with months of protests by the “gilets jaunes”, who saw it as a metropolitan elite imposing costs on the car-dependent rural working class. Macron made a rapid U-turn.
Broader carbon taxes and carbon pricing schemes appear to be effective, but they too are politically unappealing. Selling immediate sacrifices to voters for the benefit of future generations is a tough ask. Parties will also need to hold their electoral coalitions together – as shown by Labour’s debate with the unions, who fear job losses will follow the rapid decarbonisation required to meet its net zero target.
Third, the next administration needs to think about changing the way government works to deliver net zero – as the Lib Dems and Greens (who have proposed a ‘carbon chancellor’) have started to do. Environmental impact should be at the centre of how the Treasury runs the next spending review. The prime minister will need to able to hold ministers and public bodies to account – and not allow departments to "side-line climate change" and repeatedly miss targets, as Chris Grayling did for three years at the Department for Transport. Government may also need to beef up mechanisms for external scrutiny.
In a year’s time, the UK will host COP26, the next global climate summit, in Glasgow. The world will be watching, and the need for leadership on the global stage will be more pressing than ever. The prime minister will want to have more to show than bold ambitions.