General election: How UK parties are addressing 9 key net-zero challenges

(L-R): Amelia Womack

With two-thirds of the UK population set to factor climate issues into the way they vote in the 12 December general election, sustainability has never been so far up the list of public policy demands.

And from a business perspective, the next Parliament will be tasked with laying the foundations to helping UK Plc meet the UK’s 2050 net-zero goal, providing frameworks to spur short-term investment and to close skills gaps.

To that end, the Aldersgate Group partnered with BT on Wednesday night (27 November) to host a debate around the main parties’ plans for delivering on net-zero, while also delivering against key nature, waste, resource and social targets. The panel, chaired by the Financial Times’ environment and clean energy correspondent Leslie Hook, was attended by Clean Growth Minister Kwasi Kwarteng; Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Lord Fox; Labour Party advisor Alan Simpson and Deputy Green Party Leader Amelia Womack.

The high-level debate came shortly after the Aldersgate Group published its own 2019 general election manifesto. This document calls for – among other net-zero measures – an update to the Clean Growth Strategy; the introduction of a national low-carbon skills strategy; mandatory TCFD-aligned reporting from big businesses; and the embedding of net-zero in all post-Brexit trade deals.

Here, edie rounds up the participants’ answers to nine of the most pressing questions posed by the chair and the audience during the 90-minute debate.

1) When should the net-zero target be set?

Kwarteng: “The quicker the target, the better, generally. But you’ve also got to look at your ability to meet that target… frankly, I don’t think the 2030 target is something we are able to reach. I regret that, but that’s the reality of where we are today.”

The Conservative Party set the 2050 target in Summer 2019, and is sticking by this timeline in the general election.

Fox: “Each sector has different challenges, and the idea that you can talk about net-zero as a single activity is, of course, an oversimplification.

“Our plan takes us down to minus five million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2045. We don’t remove all of the carbon that we’re producing, but, as [Kwarteng] put it, we find ways of removing carbon produced through agriculture and industry.”

The Liberal Democrats are notably prioritising peatland and forest restoration and creation over man-made CCUS solutions in their manifesto, which commits £100bn to environmental issues.

Simpson: “The position of the Shadow Cabinet was pretty clear in relation to 2030. The position of the GMB and Unite was looking for a road to kick the can down. And so, we ended up with this 2030s deadline…it’s a fudge that isn’t going to be tenable.

“The reality for whoever forms the next Government… is that whatever happens in the next Parliament will determine everything; there are no slow-track options left. All of us are going to have to face up to that reality… the planet does not entertain follies who pretend they have more time than we do… we aren’t the ones controlling the timeline any longer. If the planet is racing, do we have the ambition to race ahead of it?

Womack: “We’re quite clear that 2030 is the only acceptable target right now to meet the challenges ahead. If you have a long target, then all you’re going to do is simply look at the low-hanging fruit of how you reduce carbon emissions.”

The Green Party prioritise behaviour change, systems change and tree planting over man-made CCUS.

2) What are your short-term decarbonisation targets?

Kwarteng: Did not produce numerical targets, but pointed out that the Tories are currently developing shorter-term roadmaps for buildings and transport and that they did deliver progress on the first, second, third and fourth carbon budgets.

Fox: A 60% reduction in national emissions by 2027, against a 1990 baseline – up from the 2008 Climate Change Act’s 51% target. This rises to 80% by 2032.

Simpson: “We will move towards a system of annually reducing carbon budgets. This is already effective in other parts of Europe.”

Womack: “You either work to halve emissions every year, or divide it out. For us, I think most of the emissions will be taken out in the latter period.”

3) What issues do we need to prioritise?

Kwarteng: “In order to net (emissions) off, we’re going to have to invest much more aggressively, and in a much more focussed way, in things like carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and battery technology.

“If we get back in, there will be a cabinet sub-committee to look at the issue (of creating joined-up progress). I’m told that the Energy Minister, whoever that may be, will have a place on it. We think in terms of Government departments and we’ve got to be better at thinking across them.”

The Conservatives have included an £800m CCUS pot in their manifesto, and would like to introduce an auction process, similar to that currently used for offshore wind, to spur further investment and innovation.

Fox: “If you look at the core sectors – buildings, power, surface transport, international transport, industry and agriculture – you know where they are at now. To get to net-zero, we kind of need to plot the route.”

Simpson: “One of the great millstones around Britain’s neck is that we have a history – and I say this in a non-party-point-scoring way – is that we have an issue with single-line thinking. The only solutions that are relevant in the years ahead involve shifting into systems thinking – how does one set of problems get turned into another set of solutions?”

“There’s a compelling case for repatriating British steel.

“If you want to make quick savings, almost half of energy losses are incurred at the power stations.

“The most immediate form of carbon reduction and sequestration is tree planting.”

Womack: “When we talk about these big infrastructure projects, it’s clear that the first five years will set the foundations to delivery. In the first five years… we need to be looking at clear investment in sustainable transport, public transport, renewables and warm homes.

“If the retrofitting and insulation scheme had been a bit more ambitious, we’d have needed less renewables to meet 2030 demand.”

The Green Party manifesto includes a £20bn per year investment in renewables.

4) Transport is the UK’s highest-emitting sector. How do we buck this trend?

Kwarteng: “One of the ideas which I think will be pushed is moving forward the date at which we want new cars to be carbon-free from 2040 to 2035. There were discussions across departments about how plausible this was… once technology reaches a tipping point, things move very quickly, so I don’t think 2035 would be an added challenge or a crazy target.

“Clearly, charging points are critical. We’ve announced £400m for rolling them out…The other aspect of this, when you’re looking away from peoples’ personal cars, is hydrogen.

“There is an issue with rail. A tragic part of the transport history of this country is that we had beaching just at the moment when rail took off. Over the past 20 years, rail use has doubled – but the network is a fraction of what it was in the 1960s.”

Fox:  For most people, public transport is buses – not trains. This is a quick fix that could be done with public money.

“For most people, local government has been hollowed out… we need powerful, empowered and funded local governments. We are not a million miles from this case but there is no sign from this Conservative Government that they understand the role that councils have in delivering things like EVs and charging points.

“In most streets, there is a need for 5G, full fibre and EV infrastructure. For goodness’ sake, let’s put those three together.”

Simpson: “I’d start where the emissions are highest…you can take out a disproportionate amount of carbon in the delivery vehicles part of infrastructure.

“The problem with EVs is that they don’t have enough friends in poor placed. I’d start with carpools, with a series of experiments in the poorest areas, saying to people ‘if you trade in your gas-guzzling old banger, you can have 2-3 years free membership. That would be transformative. As soon as the poor started becoming priority access, the middle class would be up in arms.

“Charging networks are absolutely key to this and, again, it’s our failure to plan comprehensive systems for battery storage and charging that’s held us back. That sense of having partnerships between the private and public sector to deliver security of modal shift is the key.”

Womack: “It’s important that we’re not just talking about EVs, but removing cars from the road, so people who need their vehicles can benefit from fewer people alone in their cars creating traffic. That’s why we want investment in trains, coaches, trams, walking and cycling so the easiest option isn’t to get in your car. Making the greenest option the cheapest and easiest changes behaviour.   

“There are many bottlenecks that could be overcome to make our networks faster, greener and more reliable.”

The Greens are keen to re-open disused rail stations, electrify rail and discourage individual car ownership. They are also keen to give local authorities more funding for EV infrastructure, and to help embed its installation in local plans.

5) When the Environment Bill comes back onto the table, what will your party do?

Kwarteng: “The idea that this Bill is going to come back in exactly the same form.. doesn’t make any sense… It would be highly presumptuous of me to say ‘when we get our stonking majority, we’re going to re-introduce the same bill’.

“I wouldn’t change very much in it and I’m always very struck by how, in this country, we’re very good at beating ourselves up and saying how brilliant (other nations) are.”

Fox: “The Lords will amend that Bill, I guarantee it.

“There is an issue with legislation solving last year’s problems, not next year’s problems. The core of this Bill – in whatever form it comes – has to be about process and empowering the regulators to deliver what they need to do.”

Simpson: “Yes, in principle, this is something we’re supporting – but it’s dependant on the detail. However, we don’t want to be in danger of blinding ourselves to much faster rates of change… we need to be a lot smarter and brighter.”

Womack: “There are a lot of changes that we’d want to make it more progressive. A law of ecocide would make sure we stop environmental destruction… fracking should never have been allowed… plans for HS2 going through ancient woodland would have been scrapped.”

6) How will you help businesses set net-zero targets?

Fox: “We’re going to be quite strict. Our manifesto sets out mandatory disclosure requirements for businesses above a certain size and requires targets along the Paris Agreement, as well as reporting on the implementation of these targets.

“As we’ve heard, the good businesses are already there. It’s the other businesses that need to be pulled in that direction.”

Womack: Emphasised the Green Party’s commitment to bring in grants for businesses wishing to discontinue high-carbon equipment in favour of cleaner alternatives – with a particular focus on SMEs.

“I think what we’d want to see is more support for those organisations that are currently supporting business, rather than putting new pressures on business. We want that easy transition.”

Simpson: “There have to be demonstrable carbon reduction obligations across the private sector, linked to their ability to access Government bonds.”

Kwarteng: “The 1862 companies act made companies have a profit and loss account if they wanted to go public. I think there’s a long way that we need to go in terms of a green accounting standard, and, once we have that, it’ll be much easier to encourage our friends in the private sector to be more responsible.”

7) What is your stance on offsetting?  

Kwarteng: Said the Conservatives are prioritising CCUS and domestic offsets over international offsets – but that they wouldn’t rule them out.

Simpson: Said Labour are “a bit sceptical”.

“These are scams and if we’re talking about transformative change, we need to think much bigger and change the nature of the market.”

Womack: “Offsetting has become like a ‘get-out-of-jail free’ card; there are many who rely on offsetting to feel better about their actions.

“But there is no getting-out-of-jail-free card, which is why energy-intensive industries need to be the point where we do talk about offsetting, rather than individual actions where change is more important.”

8) Will you introduce a carbon tax or other financial mechanisms?

Kwarteng: “Of course Government has to set the parameters. A very good example of this was in the offshore wind auctions… it was through that that we got the public and private sector to invest and deliver remarkable results.

“A carbon tax is not something that we need right now. People, disparagingly, call the supply-side ‘the low-hanging fruit’, but we’ve still got to deliver on that before we can move forward. A lot of the things we should be doing in terms of building and encouraging consumers to spend upgrading their houses isn’t technically a carbon tax, but it’s a way of getting people to think about spending more.”

Fox: “We don’t have a carbon tax in our manifesto. We tend to sell processes over services – electricity rather than heat, for example, and I think we need to change the market quite a lot.

Simpson: “I’m sceptical about carbon taxation and think we need to look at the experience of Macron in France. It’s a fairly blunt instrument unless you put the alternatives up first.

“Carbon budgeting, for me, is a much more coherent approach – as are carbon risk assessments.”

Labour is exploring the possibility of legislating for national government to report in line with the TCFD recommendations.

Womack: “When we wrote our manifesto, we were really looking at how we change behaviours by offering supports (such as) grant schemes.

“I don’t think a carbon tax is that bold. This unpaid externality is creating so much risk to our business and our country. We would slash the subsidy for aviation and have a frequent flyer levy.

“We need to make sure that we mitigate against the poorest in our communities being harmed by changes in the environment, which is why our carbon tax is linked to the delivery of a universal basic income.”

9) How will you get the general public on board?

Womack: “We’re not just talking about how we change things to take carbon out of our economy; we’re also talking about how we change behaviour….We’re not saying that people shouldn’t fly – what we’re saying is that we should be making sure that we encourage other forms of behaviour to ensure we meet targets. 15% of people take 70% of the flights.

“Making sure that challenges of social and environmental justice are fundamentally intertwined is so important.

“We don’t need to take things away from people – we need to build a system where people don’t need them.”

Kwarteng: “We’re committing a lot of money in terms of people who are fuel-poor or have less means to upgrade their housing stock. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

Simpson: “I think putting the poor at the centre of changes is critical to how we deliver genuinely transformative change.

“If you’re talking about carbon sinks, forests, peatland restoration and flood prevention, these measures are massively worker-focussed and take the public us. That, for me, is the critical litmus test.

“Facing up the importance of inclusive ownership (is key) for energy. Energy is a service, not a market. Community energy is not deliverable through the auctions process or in any other way; if you’re going to build people in, they have to be stakeholders.”

Sarah George

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