Insights

The greenest race in UK history

In a particularly fractured political climate, there's one issue around which the UK electorate has rallied. What might it mean for the country's uncertain future?

Today, for the third time in five years, UK voters will go to the polls to decide which government is the least bad option. And while Brexit is the issue at the heart of this election, another has crept up the agenda.

As recently as 2017, climate policy was considered the reserve of the Green party. But after a year of extreme weather patterns and global protests, 2019 has, somewhat unexpectedly, shaped up to be “the greenest campaign in UK election history.”[1]

Even as other issues have ripped a fault line down the middle of the electorate, the environment—or more specifically, how the UK government plans to mitigate environmental disaster—seems to have garnered unanimous interest. 

It might be the only issue on which the nation can agree. 

For once, the major political parties are aligned on the trajectory of a green economy, with Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all committing to a net-zero emissions mandate in their respective manifestos. All have pledged tougher green policies. The UK electorate has even born witness to the world’s first televised climate debate of party leaders (minus Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was represented by a melting ice sculpture). 

Check out the BBC for a full breakdown of where all parties stand on all issues. The FT also offers a great snapshot of the positions of the three forerunners. Top-line takeaways:

  • Labour “has taken the strongest environmental position out of the three main parties,” promising a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ with one million new jobs in sustainable industries to help workers transition away from fossil-fuel companies. Oil & gas companies would also be hit with a windfall tax. The party has set a path towards net-zero emissions by 2030, with 90% of electricity to come from renewable and low-carbon sources. It also plans to upgrade almost all of the UK’s 27 million homes to the “highest energy-efficiency standards.”
  • Meanwhile, the Conservatives have "focused on nature and biodiversity," with plans for a £640m “nature for climate fund," 30 million trees planted every year and an end to fracking. They've also proposed improved energy efficiency in homes and more investment in offshore wind. As for eliminating carbon emissions, the party is sticking to the 2050 target announced in June, which "was and still is a world-leading goal," says the BBC, but one that looks a little tame in the context of the current debate.
  • Finally, the Lib Dems "take a strong stand on the role business should play in society," writes the FT, with their manifesto focusing on a number of changes "designed to promote a kinder, gentler capitalism." The party has said it would make £2bn available for ultra-low or zero-emission buses, plant 60 million trees a year and end fossil-fuel subsidies by 2025. They moreover plan to provide £5bn of initial capital for a new Green Investment Bank. Like the SNP, they're aiming to stop emissions by 2045.

Regardless of which party comes out on top today, the unprecedented cross-party focus on sustainability has two major implications. 

First, and most obviously, it reflects a shift in national sentiment that’s indicative of a larger systemic change rather than a short-term trend. Consider that, in this election, the environment was cited as the biggest issue facing the country by a massive 21% of voters surveyed compared with a meagre 2% in 2012.[2] In fact, a recent ComRes survey found that 71% of Britons believe climate change to be a bigger long-term issue than Brexit.[3]

It’s not just a UK phenomenon, either. In the US for instance, where extreme weather events have caused untold economic damage in recent years, climate change mitigation is beginning to gain bipartisan support. 

In short: don’t expect the issue to go anywhere anytime soon. 

Second, and perhaps more interestingly, it’s an indication of where the UK might position itself in a post-Brexit world. 

This election comes at a critical time for the UK, a country whose future is uncertain and global position in flux. If it does stage an exit from the EU, the government must not only negotiate practical issues such as trade. In the longer term, it also faces the the peculiar challenge of rebranding the UK in a rapidly changing world. 

The two leading parties have put forward very different visions for the future. But if they—and their respective supporters—have demonstrated unanimity on one issue, it’s the environment.

Could a truly sustainable economy be the way in which the UK reclaims a position on the global stage? We think so.

[1] BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2019-50552535

[2] The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/general-election-latest-environment-climate-change-policies-poll-pollution-jeremy-corbyn-labour-a9206571.html

[3] The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/26/climate-more-pressing-than-brexit-say-71-of-britons-poll