The green vote

So just how green are the main political parties? In this election special, Claire Monkhouse finds out

The waiting is over. The date for the general election has been set for 5 May, and the political parties are busy trying to win over the British electorate. Already, lines are being drawn on key policy issues: education, crime, immigration, health, etc. But so far the environment has not been a major feature.

Election battles are not typically fought and won on environmental issues. But increasingly the British public is placing more importance on parties' green credentials. Furthermore, there is growing awareness within the business community that environmental policy is important, and that it presents both threats and opportunities.

The key environmental challenge

There is no question that serious action will be needed on climate change during the next governmental term. All parties are in agreement on this, and the issue remains at the top of the EU and international agenda. There is consensus on domestic targets, the need to do more internationally, and incorporating aviation emissions in the EUETS.

To date, the Labour government has received criticism from the opposition and environmental groups alike. Although Tony Blair considers the UK is taking the lead on climate change, actions have spoken louder than words.

Domestically, the UK back-tracked on its National Allocation Plan, emissions of CO2 have actually increased (2.2% since 1997), and successive budgets have failed to the send the right economic signals. Internationally, Blair has failed to capitalise on his close relationship with President Bush in getting the US to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol.

As Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace said recently: "So far his [Tony Blair's] record on climate change is almost entirely a record of fine words and no action. His repeated failure on this issue is undermining his diplomatic efforts& fancy speeches are not enough."

Putting this aside, some positive steps have been taken during the two Labour terms. The UK led the rest of Europe in establishing its own voluntary emissions trading scheme in 2001, in preparation for the wider EU scheme, and we remain on track to meeting Kyoto commitments.

The target for a 12.5% reduction in CO2 taken on by the UK in the burden-sharing agreement was never going to be challenging however, given the decline of the coal industry in the 1990s.

A more appropriate yardstick would be to look at progress towards domestic targets - the goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2010 is widely thought to be unachievable and much more needs to be done to bring about the step-change towards the more ambitious 2050 target to reduce emissions by 60%. Irrespective of who leads the next government, much more action will be needed domestically and internationally, including getting the US, China and India on board.

The Labour Party

Before the 2001 general election, Labour pledged to place the environment at the heart of government. In reality, environment has continued to be overshadowed by other policy issues. Following Blair's recent speech on the environment, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said he hoped this 'new found interest' would continue.

Kennedy, among others, has criticised the government for failing to live up to its 2001 manifesto commitments, pointing out that "four years later the number of car journeys has risen, fuel duty has been cut and a massive programme of road building has been announced".

Others have criticised the government's 'predict and provide' approach to road development and airport expansion, failure to answer the questions around nuclear power and its poor record on public transport. Recognising these important shortcomings, some long overdue improvements to the Buildings Regulations, incorporating energy efficiency requirements, have been made, and Britain's beaches, rivers and drinking water are now of the highest ever quality.

The government also claims to have added 30,000 hectares to the green belt, and have exceeded the target of building 60% of new houses on brownfield sites. The first National Park to be designated since 1950 also occurred during the last term. In this year's manifesto, the importance of global action on the environment is included in Blair's preface, and environmental considerations are prominent in the chapters on the economy, international policy and quality of life.

Integration into government policy

Though not as explicit as in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, environment does seem to be more integrated into other areas of government policy and inclusion of the environment in economic policy is a significant step in the right direction. Labour commitments include the promotion of green technologies and industries, and using public sector purchasing power to support environmental improvements.

The Labour party would seek to get political consensus on tackling road congestion, including examining the potential for national road pricing - this is just one of a number of policy areas where Labour and Liberals appear to agree. On climate change, they would continue to promote renewable energy, but stress the importance of a mix of energy sources for energy security, including nuclear.

Labour remains committed to national targets and will use the Climate Change Programme review this summer to get back on track. Taking a lead internationally is also essential.

On a local level, the 2005 Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act will give local authorities and regulators the powers to tackle litter, graffiti, abandoned cars, fly-tipping, noise pollution and other environmental concerns. Labour also commits to cracking down on environmental crime, including offering polluters the opportunity to invest in environmental improvements and remediation rather than just paying fines.

The environment seems to be rising up Labour's agenda, but we shall wait and see. Of course, when considering the Labour party's environmental credentials it is easier to make a judgement based on the last eight years. The question is, could either of the two main opposition parties do any better?

The Conservative Party

The environment is far from being one of the strongest of the Conservative Party's messages. Its slim manifesto dedicates just two pages to communities, transport and the environment, and much of that is about devolving control and empowering communities, rather than real commitments on sustainable development and improving the quality of life.

The Conservatives would "end Labour's war on the motorist", modernise the road network and bring stability to the rail network. Sadly, neither the Conservatives nor Labour appear to have listened to years of environmental campaigning that increasing the road network capacity is not the solution to reducing transport problems.

The same can be said of aviation, but at least in this respect the Tories (and Lib Dems) have pledged to put a hold on airport expansion until we see the consequences of including aviation emissions in the EU emissions trading scheme - something that all three parties support.

HFC phase-out

Elsewhere, on climate change, the Conservatives would aim to phase out HFCs, introduce greater incentives for energy efficiency in the home and change the vehicle excise duty system to reduce the cost to cars with lower emissions (going beyond existing preferential rates).

The Conservatives would also support the development of a broad range of renewable energy sources, to guarantee security and sustainability of Britain's energy supplies. However, in their drive for cost savings and reduced bureaucracy, the Conservatives plan to slash Defra's budget, cut 1286 Environment Agency staff and "rationalise" English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Forestry Commission. "This is nothing short of madness", said Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, who called the proposed cuts "a dangerous attack on Britain's environment and countryside". Progress made on environmental protection also threatens to be undermined by the Conservatives drive for deregulation, rather than 'smarter' or 'better' regulation.

The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats claim to be the "real alternative" on 5 May. Traditionally the greenest of the three main parties, the Liberals produced a dedicated environmental manifesto in March this year, and the environment is a core theme running throughout their main election manifesto. The importance of integrating environmental considerations into all policy areas is made explicit, and every chapter includes a section on "green action".

This does not mean, however, environmental ambitions would be pursued at the expense of the economy and a competitive industry, but in parallel, through supporting the development of new products and processes and putting the UK at the "forefront of the new green revolution".

The environment manifesto concentrates on three main areas - tackling climate change, cleaner transport and environment, and cleaner power. On climate change, the Liberals have been calling for a tripartite agreement between the three main parties, pledging to pursue new and stronger international goals, and make sure Britain puts its own house in order by agreeing a series of long-term baseline targets.

Energy efficiency and renewables

Lib Dems would focus on energy efficiency and commit to increasing the percentage of energy derived from renewable sources - 20% by 2020 and 50% by 2050. They are the only party to take a firm position against nuclear power.

Economic instruments would be used to benefit the environment and a new Treasury-led Environmental Incentive Programme would examine tax reforms, on the principle of taxing differently not taxing more. On transport, they go further on favourable vehicle excise duties for lower emission vehicles, and in the longer term would replace the VED and petrol duty with a national road user charging system based on location, congestion and pollution.

They are also in favour of extending congestion charging outside the capital, linked to upfront investment in better public transport. Their "real alternative" on the environment also includes strengthening reporting obligations for government and business as part of an Environmental Responsibility Act, and taking a firmer position on enforcement and environmental crime.

This would be achieved via a strengthened Environment Agency and the establishment of a new Environmental Court to deal with enforcing environmental rules. They would also clamp down on polluters by ensuring that penalties are appropriate to offences.

EU environmental policy

Aside from environmental commitments, one of the most significant differences between the parties, and one which would impact on environmental protection and the business community more generally, is the position taken on the EU. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, to different degrees, are pro-Europe. In contrast, the Conservatives are against the EU Constitutional Treaty, and are generally less keen to participate in closer European collaboration.

They rule out joining the euro and would seek to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy, for example. It is worth reflecting that second class status in Europe would surely undermine the UK's negotiating position in the development of new environmental policy.

We should not forget membership of the EU has helped to boost a range of environmental standards in the UK, far beyond what would have been achieved alone.


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