Greener UK debate: Parties trade blows over environmental ambitions ahead of election

Environmental representatives from the UK's major political parties clashed last night (30 May) over international climate change leadership and other key green policy issues at a General Election hustings event in London.

The lively debate hosted by the Greener UK coalition brought together Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Green Party spokespeople at what will be the the only election hustings focused on the environment ahead of the election on 8 June.

Tensions rose early on in the session when Labour Shadow Secretary Barry Gardiner accused the Tories of “sucking up” to US President Donald Trump in spite of his unwillingness to support the Paris Agreement – the historic climate change deal which requires countries to keep global average temperature to “well-below 2C” above pre-industrial levels.

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Gardiner said: “It’s quite disgraceful that out of the six major economies in the world, the UK is the only one that has not, in any way, in any speech by the Prime Minister, criticised the fact that the US is threatening to pull out of the Paris Agreement.

“I think that’s a disgrace. And the idea that we take leadership in the international community by sucking up to the US and putting aside this matter is just wrong.”

Clean growth

The Labour Party manifesto pledges to put the country “back on track” to meet the targets in the Paris Agreement by ensuring that 60% of the UK’s energy comes from zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030. The move would also help the UK meet the 2032 target set in the Fifth Carbon Budget goal to slash emissions by 57%.  

Gardiner went on to condemn the Government’s failure to establish an implementation plan for the Carbon Budget, approved by Ministers almost a year ago. He also noted the absence of a plan for the Fourth Carbon Budget – signed in 2011 – despite text promising to deliver it “as soon as reasonably practicable”.

“We’re still waiting almost six years later from the original Fourth Carbon Budget,” Gardiner said. “We need an implementation plan. It’s all very well to set a target and say we are going to meet that Carbon Budget. But unless you actually show how you are going to do it, it’s just meaningless.”

Gardiner’s criticism was dismissed by the Conservative Party’s Resource Efficiency Minister Thérèse Coffey, who reaffirmed her party’s commitment to create a “diverse energy mix that reduces the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels”. She pointed to the Government’s recent Industrial Strategy green paper, which details an aim to maximise the economic potential of a low-carbon transition.

“Clean growth is a core pillar of our Industrial Strategy,” Coffey said. “In terms of moving away from a carbon base we want to increase low-emissions vehicle usage and battery storage. We will also work with companies to try to reduce their use of energy and become more energy-efficient.”

Brexit debate

The debate quickly turned to the environmental repercussions of the UK’s departure from the EU. Seeking to reassure audience members that the UK would “leave the environment in a better place than we found it”, Coffee insisted a re-elected Tory Government would preserve the whole body of EU environmental law immediately after the UK’s departure through the Great Repeal Bill.

She also stressed the UK’s ability to maintain international climate change leadership, regardless of the UK’s EU membership. “Our first priority as a Government will be to provide stability,” Coffey said.

“There will be stability from one day to the next as we transition as we leave the EU. But we shouldn’t assume we should just rely on EU laws for what has been environmental improvements.

“Our own domestic legislation – the Environmental Protect Act, for instance – shows that we absolutely want to see an improved environment. We should also be fully aware of all the international obligations that we join in and will continue to take our seat at the table in at various conventions across the world.”

But Gardiner provided a stark warning that post-Brexit environmental regulations could suffer from a Tory “deregulation agenda”. The Great Repeal Bill text does not, for instance, rule out the future possibility to amend, repeal or reverse European green regulations.

Rather than devise a Repeal Bill, Labour is proposing to put forward a EU Rights and Protections Bill, which the Shadow Cabinet member said would substantiate all EU-derived law within UK.

“Therese really powerfully articulated what the danger is,” Gardiner said. “She spoke of the way in which laws will be transposed into UK law on day one. What she didn’t speak about was day two or year two. She knows that many in her own party are driven by the prospect of Brexit being a vehicle for further deregulation. That is what is so frightening, that there will not be that oversight that was previously provided through the European Court.”

Green transport

Green Party London Assembly member Caroline Russell threw her weight into the discussion by calling for “immediate clarity” on the future of EU green regulations from the winning party of the General Election. “There seems to be no plan to put those environmental protections back into place, even just to stand still, let alone any stronger,” she said.

Russell, a spokesperson for the Green Party on transport, specifically mentioned the statutory void that could arise if the UK were to repeal the EU Air Quality Directive. Her concerns derived from the Government’s recently launched Air Quality Plan green paper, which failed to commit to legislative action on several major issues, namely a targeted diesel scrappage scheme.

In the face of damning evidence that carbon-intensive vehicles have played a major role in the UK’s worsening air quality issue, Russell suggested that the next Government should step away from encouraging private car usage, and look towards making public transport more accessible.

The Islington North candidate said: “One of the biggest environmental problems that we have at the moment is that people thought it was easy to decarbonise transport and actually it takes quite a lot of work. Just changing to diesel cars may have reduced carbon emissions a bit but it has introduced an enormous public health problem from air pollution.

“What we’ve got to do is take the really serious steps to transform society. With transport, we shouldn’t be still thinking about individual car ownership as being the way to get over the air pollution problem. We should actually be thinking about revolutionising public transport, so that wherever people live, they’ve got access to public transport, and they don’t need to use a private car in the first place.”

Support for clean transport in the Green Party manifesto is embodied in a £2bn investment programme to promote cycling and walking. Other parties have sought to make green transport a key environment pledge in their respective manifestos, with the Lib Dems, for example, promising to pass a Green Transport Act and deliver support for the manufacture of low-emission and electric vehicles (EVs).

Lib Dem environment spokesperson Baroness Parminter spoke exclusively with edie after participating in yesterday’s debate to discuss her party’s proposed “ambitions programmes” for transport and other key green areas. Read that full interview here.

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