Climate: the crucial election issue nobody’s talking about  

The cost-of-living continues to be the most important issue for British voters ahead of the General Election. Latest polling shows the environment and climate change in fifth place – behind health, the economy and immigration, but ahead of traditionally significant issues like crime and education – with the majority of people wanting political parties to take strong action to address the global challenge.  

And while climate continues to be a top five concern for the public, it has received comparatively less airtime in the campaign so far – with other issues dominating party messaging and the wider debate.  

Climate as a dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives has been clear for some time, following Sunak’s ‘U-turn’ late last year and ongoing pressure from the right of his party and climate-sceptic Reform UK. This shift in strategy followed the Conservatives holding onto Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in a byelection dominated by anti-ULEZ sentiment.  

Nearly one year on from that surprise result and with party manifestos being published last week, we now have a clearer view on where each party stands on climate issues.    

With all the polls pointing to a significant Labour majority, the party’s manifesto – which contains few surprises and is widely seen as a ‘safety-first’ approach – is set to be the next government blueprint. However, proposals from the sharper ends of the political spectrum – e.g. the Green Party and Reform – indicate the parameters of the debate for the next parliament and which ideas may gain traction if the public (and potentially a faction of its own MPs) feel Labour isn’t delivering.   

A positive vision, with its caveats  

Apart from Reform, all major political parties continue to support the UK’s 2050 net zero goal. And while there is broad alignment in other areas too, such as the expansion of solar power, growth in offshore wind and support for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, we can see clear differences in how the parties talk about climate and their view on what the transition means for the country.  

In the wake of the Uxbridge byelection result, some commentators pointed to a tempering of enthusiasm from Labour on green issues, with the party rowing back on its £28bn green investment pledge. In reality, the Labour manifesto shows a continued commitment to the issue and talks in ambitious terms about the net zero transition – in contrast to the Conservatives’ “pragmatic approach”. While acknowledging that the climate and nature crisis is “the greatest long-term global challenge that we face”, Labour puts the issue front and centre of its plan as one of its five missions: to make Britain a clean energy superpower, to cut bills, create jobs and deliver security.   

This more positive vision isn’t without its qualifications, however, with Labour alluding to how challenging it will be to reach the long-held ambition of decarbonising the electricity system by 2030. Decarbonisation of the grid has been achieved in the past with limited impact on households – but the next 10 years are when the hard choices will need to be made to ensure a just transition. Labour will be faced with difficult decisions here, including on funding for subsidy mechanisms in light of rising development costs and how to encourage the behaviour change needed in areas such as domestic energy efficiency.  

What green groups will want to see from a future Labour government is how the party can continue to talk up the opportunities and benefits presented by the transition, while being honest about the scale of the challenge.  

Private sector critical to Labour’s plans 

As with many things in the manifesto, Labour is light on detail when it comes to the specifics of its climate and environmental policies – as it seeks to avoid taking electoral chances and to maintain sufficient leeway when it comes to implementing these changes.   

What is clear is that its clean energy plans will be heavily reliant on private sector investment. Labour has consistently said its plans will be funded by increasing the windfall tax on the oil and gas industry, as well as using GB Energy, its £7.3bn National Wealth Fund and major reforms to the planning system to drive billions of private sector capital in things like EV battery gigafactories, carbon capture and storage and the manufacturing of green hydrogen.  

The goal is for the National Wealth Fund to catalyse £3 of private sector investment for every £1 of public money spent. Key to making this a success will be identifying how the NWF can correct market failures where the state is needed to unlock technologies, such as CCUS, which otherwise wouldn’t come to market. Providing clarity on the role and purpose of the NWF in this way will be key to avoiding the same fate as the short-lived Green Investment Bank.   

There is little detail, however, on how the private sector will be incentivised and given the confidence, through clear frameworks and policy certainty, to invest. New research by think tank IPPR has found that the UK was bottom of the G7 league for investment in 24 out of 30 years, mostly due to a lack of investment by UK companies in things like factories, equipment and innovation.  

With other countries leading the way in key green technologies, a key priority for an incoming Labour government will be ensuring it can attract the investment on the scale it has projected. Naturally, the UK won’t be able to spend at equivalent levels to the US, Europe and China in this global race. So, being clear on where the UK can compete and making the hard choices to support this will be important areas for Labour to grapple with. For business, the opportunity is to understand where it can help provide solutions and support Labour’s plans. Without this, the UK risks being left behind and losing out to other nations in the green growth race.  

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