Why the Conservatives’ environmental promises are too little, too late

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Why the Conservatives’ environmental promises are too little, too late

With the upcoming general election on December 12th, it’s important to know the policies your vote is supporting.

Following the Extinction Rebellion protests, the parties’ plans to handle the mounting climate crisis will determine who gets the vote for a large portion of voters. Through an opinion poll, The Guardian found that “Almost two-thirds of people agreed the climate emergency was the biggest issue facing humankind”. 

Information in this article was up to date as of November 25, 2019.

Why this matters

It’s important to be aware of the fact that some of the climate and environment promises made in the Conservative Party’s manifesto are good when looked at independently. However, in conjunction with the party and its background, which must be taken into account, they’re below average at best. 

Almost a week before the official manifesto was released, The Guardian revealed how all parties planned on tackling the climate crisis, including the Conservative Party’s plan. The page on the Conservative Party website that now holds the manifesto was previously titled ‘Our Priorities’ and had no mention of an environmental plan. However, now ‘Boris Johnson’s Guarantee’ includes “Reaching Net-Zero by 2050 with investment in clean energy solutions and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and pollution”. It is undoubtedly an improvement, but considering both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats had this information available front and centre last week makes the Tories’ efforts seem rather unimpressive.

It takes reading 55 out of the 59-page Conservative manifesto before getting to their one-page climate change and environmental plan. Though the sparse half of page 43 covering their Environment Bill shouldn’t be ignored, for the purposes of this article, page 55 will be the focus.

It is important to highlight that the professionalism of the manifesto seems to plummet with the addition of ‘Unlike Jeremy Corbyn’, which harkens more to a primary school election as opposed to a parliamentary one. Regardless of how professional the page may or may not sound, there are larger concerns that need to be addressed.

Young people and their signs captured at one of the many climate strikes. Li-An Lim/Unsplash.

Lofty claims and little evidence

The alleged “world-leading” goal of Zero emissions by 2050 is simply not that. The Paris Agreement goal demands a target of zero emissions by at least 2045-2050. Norway’s goal set the date for 2030, Finland’s said 2035, and Iceland’s is trying for 2040, all of which proves the UK’s goal is hardly “world-leading”. However, 2050 is the recommended target by the Committee on Climate Change, and while it would be difficult to get there sooner, there is nothing to be lost by trying. It should be mentioned that the UK was the first G7 country to legislate net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, though only days before France.

Moreover, the UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow 2020 is a wonderful chance for the world’s nations to collaborate. And yet, having the UK host the conference while led by the Conservatives, a party not completely on board with tackling climate change, is welcoming disaster. Craig Morely, who is standing as the Conservative Party’s candidate for Reading East, though not denying the human contribution, has said: “There is no developing catastrophe and no smoking gun.” Boris Johnson previously reflected a similar view, seeing climate change as a “primitive fear” but changed his position following his appointment as foreign secretary in 2016.

A history of missing targets

Tackling deforestation is good. The Conservative Party’s precedent on the subject is far from it. The May 2019 Committee on Climate Change report stated:  “Afforestation targets for 20,000 hectares/year across the UK nations (due to increase to 27,000 by 2025) are not being delivered, with less than 10,000 hectares planted on average over the last five years.” Funnily enough, the manifesto doesn’t actually provide a concrete goal, instead aiming to “set up new international partnerships to tackle deforestation”, which follows the growing theme of being worryingly vague. One sentence about such a serious issue is far from comforting, especially taking into consideration the Team Trees initiative lead by the YouTuber MrBeast. In just under a month, over 15 million dollars have been donated to reachwith the goal of reaching 20 million by January 1, 2020. The money will be used to plant 20 million trees. If this is what YouTubers can do, then the government should be doing just as much, if not more.

In 2018, 35 per cent of assessed surface water bodies were of high or good status, as opposed to 37 per cent in 2013, as reported by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. While this includes “rivers, canals (Northern Ireland does not report on canals), lakes, estuaries and coastal water bodies”, the proposal outlined only has plans to improve ocean quality and does not address the decreasing quality of other bodies of water.

The Blue Belt program that the proposal aims to extend is an important one, but the extension raises some questions. The initial program was set to run from 2016 to 2020, and “protect over 4 million square kilometres of ocean around the UK Overseas Territories”. As the program was set to terminate in 2020, the extension to 2030 suggests that the goal was not met. The program was also provided with £20 million of funding over four years. Although the manifesto mentions extending the program, it does not explicitly state how much will be given in funding, or if it will be funded via the planned £500 million Blue Planet Fund.

Windmills on land. Karsten Würth/Unsplash.

An abrupt reversal on energy

The manifesto also references how the budget will aid these suggested measures to tackle climate change. Again, this is where the phrasing becomes tricky, as it seems like the 4 billion referenced will be solely towards new flood defences as opposed to all the efforts listed in the same paragraph. In the same section as that, an “electric vehicle infrastructure including a national plug-in network and gigafactory” will seemingly receive an unspecified amount of funding.

This is rather odd, taking into account that in November last year, the Conservative government scrapped the plug-in hybrid vehicle grant completely, and cut the individual all-electric grant by 1,000 pounds. These grants had been in place since 2011 to encourage the purchase of alternative fuel vehicles to help the UK meet emission targets. Mike Hawkes, the Executive Chief of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said at the time: ‘’Given the importance of environmental goals, it’s astounding that just three months after publishing its ambitious vision for a zero-emissions future, government has slashed the very incentive that offers our best chance of getting there.”

In July 2018, the offshore wind capacity was set to double following a government announcement. This led to a goal of at least 30GW by 2030, enough power to meet over a third of the country’s electric needs. This is mentioned in the manifesto, therefore the party is staying true to its previous aims from over a year ago. However, a few months ago, several companies called for further onshore wind initiatives. The Committee on Climate Change also recommended onshore wind companies be allowed to participate in the bid for contracts earlier this year. The restrictions on onshore wind farms were put into place by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015. This has prevented onshore wind developers from being able to compete for support contracts, dropping new onshore wind developments by almost 80 per cent last year. A poll shows that 74 per cent of Tory voters support onshore wind farms, which begs the question: Why is there no mention of it in the manifesto?

It is ironic to see the party proposing to “build the first fully deployed carbon capture storage cluster” considering Johnson voted against requiring a strategy for carbon capture and storage in the energy industry in 2016. Moreover, the clause in the energy bill proposing this saw 268 No’s, all from conservative MPs, beating the 229 votes in favour.

The Conservative party has also made attacks on providing incentives for investment in renewable energy. 306 out of the 310 MPs that voted in favour of the ‘Application of Climate Change Levy Tax to Electricity Generated from Renewable Sources’ bill were from the Conservative Party. This essentially means that companies would no longer see a financial benefit for their sustainable efforts, as they would no longer be granted a tax reduction no matter what they invested in. All of that weakens the manifesto’s promise to “invest £500 million to help energy-intensive industries move to low-carbon techniques”.

Windmills at sea. Nicholas Doherty/Unsplash.

Phrasing: important and frequently unclear

It is undeniably counterproductive to support “gas for hydrogen” and more nuclear energy when the aim is to promote greener energy. It’s true that hydrogen is indeed zero-emission, but, unfortunately, ‘’Gas for hydrogen’’ is anything but. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and a variant of it, known as shale gas, is accessed by fracking. Which is rather strange, considering that the manifesto is claiming that “we will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”.

So surely there must be a different sort of “gas for hydrogen’’ production. According to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, there are four primary processes of producing Hydrogen, of which, thermochemical means is the only process that contains references to gas. This comes in the form of natural gas reforming, coal gasification, and biomass gasification. However, “gasification” refers to taking the coal or biomass and turning it into gas, leading to the conclusion that the aforementioned “gas for hydrogen production” is, in fact, natural gas. Therefore, the Conservative manifesto is referencing the use of harmful fossil fuels in the production of a green energy source, and completely missing the point yet again. Especially considering that one way of accessing natural gas is through fracking.

The issue with fracking

Fracking has long been a controversial topic. In August of this year, a 2.9 magnitude earthquake was caused by Cuadrilla Resources, the only company licensed to carry out the process in the UK. The manifesto states that fracking will not be supported until it is scientifically proven to be safe. Historically, science has given no proof that fracking is a safe practice, and it most likely never will.

The manifesto also states in the same paragraph that “having listened to local communities, we have ruled out changes to the planning system”, in reference to fracking. Yet, as of this month, the local people of Preston New Road, where the fracking was taking place had been protesting for five years. That’s hardly listening.

But what is fracking? Wired provides a good explanation of the process. Most importantly, it notes that “in the UK, the technique has been roundly condemned by environmental campaigners because it uses huge amounts of water, potentially hazardous chemicals and can cause earth tremors”. While a popular practice in the US, the UK really shouldn’t be taking pointers from a country that withdrew from the Paris Agreement.

A factory polluting the air. Patrick Hendry/Unsplash.

Moreover, it was the Tories who brought fracking to the UK in the first place. The last fracking attempt in 2011, which led to the first of two moratoriums, was under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Now, looking further into this, it turns out that the Conservative Party voted in favour of adding additional fracking protections in 2015 – which yes, sounds good – but the vague terminology of the proposition left room for issues, as the fracking itself couldn’t take place in protected areas, but little preventions were in place regarding the operations surrounding the fracking.

Christian Matheson, the City of Chester Labour representative said during the committee debate: “I remind you… of the 24-hours-a-day operations, the huge air and light pollution, and all the heavy goods vehicle movements that go with it. This is not the right time to introduce a statutory instrument about something that is happening down below, because it is intrinsically linked to what is happening on the surface.”

So, even though further protections are clearly beneficial, the primary focus of this was a Tory bid to introduce onshore fracking in the UK, and following that with a concerningly vague set of regulations regarding protected areas. The committee debate can be read online.

Graham Jones, Hyndburn Labour, said of the draft regulations: “It is all about finances, not about safety. Sporadically, over the next couple of pages, the economic rather than the environmental case is mentioned. We should be considering the environmental – not the financial – argument.”

Touting clean energy while allowing the reintroduction of coal

The forests are on fire, and they have been for a while. Forest Service, USDA/Flickr.

The pledge to “lower energy bills by investing £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals”. In April, the government scrapped subsidies for domestic solar panels, contributing to a 94 per cent drop in new installations in the month following. Jobs in the renewable energy sector, yet another promise by the Conservative manifesto, saw a decrease of nearly a third due to the slowdown of new projects, due in part by the frequent government cuts to renewable energy schemes.

Additionally, in 2015, the Conservative government scrapped a plan to make new homes zero carbon from 2016. Ed Davey, former secretary of state for energy and climate change, tweeted that “Cameron may as well hug a coal power station” in reference to David Cameron. This brings up something that the manifesto decided to leave out: the Woodhouse Colliery, the coal mine the Conservatives are putting in no efforts to prevent. In fact, even a search of the word “coal” in the manifesto yielded nothing.

While the Conservative party is touting that “conservation is, and always has been, at the heart of Conservatism”, the government is choosing not to intervene. Trudy Harrison, Conservative MP for Copeland is going so far as to say: “It is vital that this development goes ahead and I am pleased that common sense has prevailed.”  Considering that the last deep coal mine in the UK before this closed in 2016, “common sense” is arguably one of the worst descriptors for this plan.

Boris Johnson, in particular, has an interesting history with clean transport. The maker of the New Routemaster buses commissioned during Johnson’s time as Mayor of London collapsed in September following dropping demand due to the 350k price tag. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders contributes to the decline of new buses to pre-Brexit instability and “confusion over emission rules”.

Air quality concerns and stalling

Air quality is another point which alone could garner pages of criticism. The British Heart Foundation’s Chief Executive warned in October that the government’s Environment Bill “must go further to protect against air pollution”. The Environment Bill was set to adopt the WHO’s guidelines for air quality in 2022, but the foundation argued that this must be integrated now, as “outdoor air pollution is responsible for an estimated 11,000 deaths due to a heart attack or stroke” yearly. Moreover, while the bill recognized the dangers of fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, the foundation urges that this be adopted into law.

Polluted air in Shanghai. Holger Link/Unsplash.

As for the date to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars? Earlier this year, the Committee on Climate Change offered 2030 as a feasible date and having the cars off the road altogether by 2050. Therefore, the “consultation” the Conservative Party is referencing seems like a stalling tactic, there is a date and it was even given by a committee designed to advise the UK on handling climate change. 

So, why does this matter?

This is not to say that the more liberal parties are perfect. But the Tories’ history with handling climate and their current stance show essentially serve to prove one thing: they don’t really care. Their promises seem like an awkwardly put-together afterthought, which, historically, haven’t been met, and, in many cases, are an abrupt turnaround from previous policies. Not to mention, the introductory paragraph states: “Our Environment Bill will guarantee that we will protect and restore our natural environment after leaving the EU.” It is unlikely that the line was intended to be interpreted as though the efforts would only begin once the Conservative Party has pushed Brexit through, but that is an underlying concern.

Will it ever end? Jon Tyson/Unsplash.

Brexit is a pressing issue, but the climate crisis isn’t going to wait for the UK to figure out if it’s staying in the EU or not. The climate crisis is already here. And it’s not about each individual nation; it’s about the planet. It’s about taking care of the place where we all live and ensuring the next generation can too. It’s a hard truth that it’s reached such a serious point that the world is literally on fire before many are willing to acknowledge that there is even an issue. That’s why the next government needs to be one that understands the importance of tackling this crisis. A quality that the Conservative Party has proven, time and time again, it does not have.