Environment takes centre stage in general election

The forthcoming general election will see environmental issues high up the political agenda and that can only be a good thing, says Matthew Farrow.

A recent opinion poll found that 65% of Britons believe climate change is the biggest issue facing the world and for 54% it would affect how they voted in December’s general election. 

Now, the poll was commissioned by green NGO Client Earth and does sound like the sort of answers people feel they should give when questioned by a pollster, but there is no doubt that the combined efforts of the IPCC, Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, the Daily Mail and David Attenborough have put green issues on the election agenda in a way that is unusual.

Unusual rather than unprecedented. In the European elections in 1989, the Green Party gained 15% of the vote (at the time of writing they are at 4%). But what is worth remembering is that environmental issues normally gain prominence during times of prosperity (1989 was in the latter stages of the 1980s boom, while the huge support for climate action that led to the Climate Change Act was in 2006/7 at the end of Blair-era prosperity). Yet this time, green issues have come up the agenda against a background of a political crisis and a slowing economy.

The government is going into the election on the basis of a reasonably strong record on the environment, but one overshadowed by a huge cloud. The cloud of course is Brexit, or more specifically the persistent perception that despite all the talk of ‘non-regression clauses’ and ‘dynamic alignment’ of regulations, the real Tory agenda post-Brexit will be a slash-and-burn approach to environmental regulations. 

Against that, the legally binding net zero target, the environment bill and the planned banning of single use plastics along with the natural capital focus add up to a stronger record than most recent governments.

The opposition parties meanwhile have largely focused on climate change and as is the way with oppositions are engaged in a bidding war with the government over who can do broadly the same thing but faster and better. So, the current government has put a 2050 net zero target in law, while the Labour conference voted for a 2030 target (though it remains to be seen whether that would actually make the manifesto). 

Sajid Javid has promised £20bn on low carbon infrastructure, while John McDonnell has raised the stakes to £250bn over ten years to tackle climate change, while the Green Party would spend £100bn every year to decarbonise.   

What’s interesting is how the two main parties couch their green offerings in language which reflects their historical ethos and heritage. So, the Conservatives talk a lot about protecting our natural capital and passing on the environment to the next generation in better shape – classic conservatism. Labour meanwhile has adopted the Green New Deal rhetoric of Democrat senator Ocasio-Cortez and talks of a green industrial revolution – the focus is urban and job-centred.

Will any of this actually make much difference to voting patterns on 12 December?  It’s hard to say, but as an environmentalist I’m pleased that green issues in this election are more than the usual footnote. 

Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.