MPs claim climate crisis has changed from ‘outsider issue’ to ‘mainstream’ challenge, so why are policies faltering?

MPs are more aware of the climate crisis than they were five years ago

Five years ago, the UK became the first major nation to set into law a target to reach net-zero emissions. Set under then Prime Minister Theresa May, the Net-Zero target for 2050 built on the solid foundations of the UK Climate Change Act, which had turned the nation into a world leader in many green markets including offshore wind. Now, industries say wind projects are less viable due to costs and political frameworks. 

Interviews in 2018 by the Green Alliance found that MPs at the time considered the climate crisis to be an “outsider issue”, despite the UK’s long track record of decoupling emissions from economic growth. At the time, the UK was leading the rest of the G20 on decoupling emissions, however, research from 2021 from Maplecroft has claimed that “out of the G20 economies the UK has made the most progress in tackling climate change”. Was the UK resting on its laurels?

The trends would suggest that the UK has changed its stance on climate action, and it has, but not in the way you’d expect. That the UK has failed to capitalise on early progress to decarbonise suggests that MPs no longer view the climate crisis as an important political issue, but they do, more so than in 2018.

Research published this week by the Green Alliance found that UK MPs consider the climate crisis to be a “mainstream” issue, and are more than willing to speak out about the need for action.

The Green Alliance claims that the scientific case for action has improved, backed by the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its plethora of special reports.

MPs also feel that the existing Carbon Budgets are scientifically robust and give the nation a good timeframe of action to build towards. The Green Alliance also notes that constituents are increasingly speaking to MPs about climate concerns, giving parliamentarians a mandate to act.

The Green Alliance’s executive director Shaun Spiers said:  “Climate change is a mainstream issue for UK politicians, who increasingly understand the scientific basis for action and feel they have a mandate from their constituents to demand it.

“It’s critical that we ensure a fair transition, but these interviews show there is little political capital to be gained from trying to create dividing lines on climate action.”

Political agenda

If the climate crisis is rising up the political agenda, then why has 2023 been the year for high-level backsliding on climate action in the UK?

At the start of September, the High Court agreed to hear a joint challenge by green groups to the UK Government’s updated net-zero strategy, which was unveiled this March after the previous iteration was ruled to be unlawful.

The hearing concerns a package of policy measures announced in March 2023, including the revised net-zero strategy and Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP). Green groups will argue that these documents do not set out measures that would fully deliver the level of economy-wide decarbonisation committed to under the Climate Change Act.

Following a successful legal challenge to the previous iteration of the net-zero strategy, the groups are stating that the updated strategy provides little in the way of progress. It still, they claim, lacks the sector-specific detail and level of incentives needed.

More broadly the Government’s own climate watchdog, the Climate Change Committee, claimed in its latest progress report to Parliament on the net-zero transition that “worryingly slow” levels of decarbonisation were evident across several key high-carbon sectors, including heavy industry.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also agreed to open licensing for more than 100 oil and gas fields in a bid to reduce energy costs, despite widespread evidence that the decision won’t impact energy bills, but that it could jeopardise the net-zero commitment.

Even the UK’s zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) mandate, one of the few policy pieces with timeframes attached – ones that have actually been moved forward rather than delayed – is now at the centre of a political tug-of-war, with some MPs calling for policies to be relaxed to boost manufacturing.

Tightropes and timelines

The Green Alliance notes that MPs feel they are “walking a tightrope” between responding to the scale of environmental issues and managing a complex process of change.

One of the latest myths surrounding the net-zero transition is that it will incur higher costs for society during a time when the cost of living has already devolved into a crisis. There are, however, numerous studies that suggest that the low-carbon transition can deliver an economic boon for the UK. Oxford Economics and Energy UK, for example, estimate that the UK’s net-zero transition could bring a £240bn economic boost.

Some MPs are falling back on the line that their constituents do not wish to be impacted by the upfront costs of the transitions. MP’s point to higher costs of goods and services, or job losses in higher-carbon industries. Parliamentarians are conscious that people “do not want their standard of living eroded” or to be “charged to be green”.

There is a risk that these views, which are being parroted by some areas of the mainstream media, derail and ultimately sway political decisions on green policy.

Some MPs are more resolute, however. According to the interviews, on MP told the green group: “I think the greatest challenge to net-zero isn’t around polarisation necessarily. I think it’s just around a lack of focus and political will and being knocked off course by events…But we can’t afford not to do this.”

What the UK is left with is its own “sliding doors moment”, where politicians are increasingly understanding their mandate to act, which itself is on an upwards trajectory, but that the actual leadership and policies to do so are backsliding.

It may well be that the global negotiations at COP28 later this year reaffirm the UK’s commitment to its net-zero mandate. It is becoming harder and harder for the nation to claim it is a world leader on climate action, especially following the key legislative frameworks issued by the likes of the US and EU to stimulate green markets.

Commenting on the situation, Rebecca Willis, Professor in Energy and Climate Governance at Lancaster University, added:  “In the past five years climate change has moved from an outsider issue for politicians to the mainstream. But politicians must now maintain the political mandate to act urgently and ambitiously on climate as we debate and carry out major social transformations on the road to net-zero.

“MPs have a pivotal position in achieving this – they are representatives of people and businesses, and they reinforce our values and culture.”

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