The Election Debate on…Climate Action

Looking back at 2021, climate change was top of the agenda. The UK was the host of both the G7 and COP26 and the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Development had placed climate leadership at the heart of the UK’s international activities. But in the years since, the cross-party consensus on the urgency of the climate crisis, and the economic gains from tackling it, has splintered. Triggered not least by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on energy prices, politicians find themselves wrangling once again over what the correct speed and pace for the climate transition is.

In recent months, both Labour and the Conservatives have therefore scaled back a number of their net-zero commitments. Last year Prime Minister Rishi Sunak trailed a ‘more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach,’ to climate action, citing the need to reduce the cost and disruption of net-zero policies to Britons’ lives. This shift included a delay to the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, relaxing targets for phasing out gas boilers, and scrapping certain energy efficiency requirements. Labour followed suit in February, rolling back its £28 billion annual green investment pledge, arguing the current economic climate no longer made the policy feasible.

For both parties this u-turn has been driven, at least in part, by Labour’s defeat in the Uxbridge by-election. Labour’s defeat was widely blamed on its decision to expand the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in London, in turn sparking concern that climate leadership was no longer a vote winner. So what are the party’s policies on climate change and what role might a future government play in climate leadership?

At the top level, both Labour and the Conservatives have committed to achieving net-zero by 2050. Both parties have also committed to international leadership on climate change, with Labour pledging to lead a global ‘Clean Power Alliance’, while the Conservatives have committed to continue to ringfence the UK’s commitment to International Climate Finance. Neither party would deny though that Labour’s climate plans are, overall, more ambitious. Labour’s commitments include plans to decarbonise the electricity sector by 2030, transform the UK into a ‘clean energy superpower’ under a New Energy Independence Act, and establish ‘Great British Energy’, a publicly owned energy company. Labour has sought to tie these climate ambitions to achieving its wider ambitions around jobs and prosperity, arguing that ‘GB energy’ will cut energy bills by £300, enhance energy security, and create 650,000 green jobs.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives argue such an approach would burden households with higher bills. While committing to accelerate the rollout of renewables, the Conservative manifesto prioritises ‘keeping the lights on’ over promoting clean energy. Perhaps the clearest difference between the two parties then is in their approach to the North Sea – the Conservatives have pledged to conduct annual licencing rounds for oil and gas in the North Sea, while Labour has pledged not to issue any new licences to explore any new fields in the North Sea. Labour has also pledged not to issue any new coal licences, to ban fracking for good, and to only retain a strategic reserve of gas power stations to guarantee security of supply.

Elsewhere most of the other major parties have announced broadly similar climate policies. The SNP and Lib Dems have both pledged to reach net-zero by 2045, slightly earlier than the Conservatives and Labour. The Greens, unsurprisingly, have the most ambitious climate agenda, promising to push the government to transition to net-zero ‘as soon as possible’ and more than a decade before 2050. To do this they would invest in wind power and energy storage capacity and introduce a carbon tax on all fossil fuel imports and domestic extraction.

It is the increasingly popular Reform UK party though whose policies on climate change are the most divergent from the wider consensus. Adopting the same argument as the Conservatives that net zero ambitions are driving up domestic bills, Reform then goes on to adopt a more radical response, committing to scrapping all net-zero and renewable energy related subsidies. At its heart this is a battle for right-wing voters, for most of whom net-zero is not a top priority, especially not relative to the economy. With Reform moving up the polls and manifestos now set, no doubt Sunak will look to downplay his climate ambitions in the final stages of the election to win potential swing voters away from Reform. Meanwhile Labour will be eager to assert, particularly in appealing to young and potential Green voters, that climate action remains a top priority for Labour, and, for the benefit of a wider electoral base, that it will be an economic boom rather than a burden.

View BFPG’s full Election Watch series here

Jessica Riseborough & Evie Aspinall

Jessica Riseborough is a BFPG Research Intern and Evie Aspinall is Director of the BFPG