Climate Change. The Conservative Manifesto is playing chicken with Physics.

Reading the section of the Conservative Manifesto on climate change- one page tucked away as a sort of afterthought – one item among so many – on page 55 (out of 64) to show just how important they think it is – I can’t help but be reminded of a 1971 meeting between Thurrock Friends of the Earth and the local Young Tories. We were from different planets of course. Thurrock FOE – like a foretaste of the UKSCN -was made up entirely of school students. Mostly working class high flyers from Grays and Aveley Tech and the Convent Girls School living on estates in Grays, Stifford Clays and Tilbury. In the Conservative Party it was possible at that time to be considered “young” at the age of 35, but the two brittly over confident chaps who came to talk with us weren’t much older than we were. They were also from Orsett, a well to do rural enclave that could double for Ambridge on a good day.

Our concerns were global, systemic. Even before climate change was recognised as the threat that it is, there was a sense that we were using resources in a way that was reckless for our own survival. We picketed Tescos because of overpackaging and worried about the built in obsolescence of so much of the tat that was being produced – the philosophy at the time being neatly skewered in Tom Stoppard’s play “Jumpers” as “no problem is insoluble; given a large enough plastic bag.” We picketed the motor show over safety and pollution. We worried about the air we were breathing. With the huge cement works by the Dartford Tunnel, where Lakeside is now, and the predominantly westerly winds, everyone between there and the Estuary was breathing solid lungfuls of cement dust on a daily basis. That then blew across the North Sea and contributed to the acid rain that was killing European forests at the time. We worried about Dutch elm disease as the local variant of deforestation – all the magnificent elms in Dell Woods, Alfred Russel Wallis’s* abandoned arboretum, were dying- and we were beginning to see all this as a manifestation of a system driven by profit.

The Young Conservatives saw the fundamental issue with “the environment” as being litter. More to the point, litter and fly tipping being brought in by people from Basildon – at that time a relatively new New Town full of decanted Londoners and therefore deeply suspect. It struck me at the time that this missed the point on every level that it was possible to miss it on.

Today’s Conservative Manifesto – written as it is by a consultant for a fracking company – does much the same. It starts with a self soothing pat on the back for achievements they have not made.

“Our Government’s stewardship of the natural environment, its focus on protecting the countryside and reducing plastic waste, is a source of immense pride.”  Really? Walk down any urban street and check out how successful they have been at “reducing plastic waste”. Take a deep breath and savour the air that has led them to being taken to court – twice – by the European Union for failing to clear up dangerous levels of air pollution. Bear in mind that this was the government that wanted to sell off National Parks and – for a while – was prepared to contemplate fracking within them.

“But today, the climate emergency means that the challenges we face stretch far beyond our borders.”

This would be the climate emergency that was introduced into parliament by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party and on which most Conservative MPs abstained. Note that the challenge that stretches beyond our borders is one that “we” face. Not a global problem that has to be faced together, but one that has to be seen through the distorting lens of nation. The challenges being faced now under the impact of climate change in the developing world are seen in the framework of a possibly threatened cosy domesticity.

“Thanks to the efforts of successive Governments, the UK has cut carbon emissions by more than any similar developed country. We are now the world’s leader in offshore wind – a fantastic success story of Government and the private sector working hand in hand to cut costs and deliver ever more electricity at plummeting costs.” 

This sentence stands boldly and four square on the thinnest of thin ice.

  • The UK has cut its carbon emissions by a sharp shift away from coal for energy generation and by offshoring significant parts of manufacturing industry to China and other developing countries. The cement dust in the air I grew up with is no longer in Thurrock, but in Chongking. The goods that are consumed in the UK are not counted towards its carbon emissions. If they were, UK carbon emissions from consumption would almost double.
  • There is no mention here of onshore wind – which the Conservatives have hobbled. Onshore wind installation – now the cheapest form of energy generation – fell by 80% in 2018 because of planning restrictions brought in by the Conservative government.
  • Nor is there a reference to solar. The removal of the solar subsidy – on the grounds that a “mature industry” should stand on its own two feet in an open market – led to new solar installation falling by half in 2016 and again in 2017.
  • Fossil fuel subsidy in UK in 2018 was running at £12 billion – the highest level in the EU. So much for mature industries competing on a level playing field.

These decisions are perverse and suicidal – not something anyone could be proud of. We should also note that without the colossal Chinese investment in wind technology which have reduced its costs to below those of fossil fuel equivalents, there would be no expansion even of offshore wind. Freeloading of the efforts of others while taking credit for them is ever the Conservative way.

“Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, we believe that free markets, innovation and prosperity can protect the planet.”

This translates as, leave it to the good old boys in charge- when have they ever let you down? Such complacency in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. How far have “free markets, innovation and prosperity” reduced carbon emissions so far? Innovation requires a level of investment that the private sector is proving remarkably resistant to making. Prosperity is an odd word to lay claim to after ten years of austerity. More urgently, business as usual free market investment decisions, already taken and in the pipeline, threaten the world with a 4C temperature rise. That is not according to Jeremy Corbyn. That is according to the Governor of the Bank of England. The fossil fuel companies spend millions on subverting any decisions that might affect their profits in the short term – in the same way that the tobacco companies and the asbestos companies did. Left to itself the “free market” is knowingly pushing us to hell in a handcart.

Lets look at what the Conservatives propose to do if re-elected.

“We will lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent
Committee on Climate Change.”

2050 is better than many but not world leading. Sweden is aiming for 2045, Finland 2035 and Norway by 2030. But more significant than the date is the action taken to meet it. The Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee pointed out in August that “Fundamental change is required, but government keeps papering the cracks instead of fixing the foundations.” Current plans, none of them revised by this Manifesto, mean the UK will miss its existing targets and increasingly fall behind in the next ten crucial years – which, as Labour rightly points out – have to be front loaded with initiatives if we are to have a chance of keeping temperature rises below 2C, let alone 1.5C. The Conservatives seem content to keep playing chicken with physics. We really can’t afford to let them keep doing that.

“We have doubled International Climate Finance. And we will use our position hosting the UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow in 2020 to ask our global partners to match
our ambition.”

“Doubled” sounds impressive, but the actual quantity of International climate Finance coming from the UK is £5.8 billion over 5 years (2016-21); about a billion a year. Developed countries – acting under the Paris Agreement – are supposed to be transferring £100 billion a year to developing countries to allow development without carbon emissions, but the actual transfer is running at between a tenth and a fifth of that. Meanwhile the UK continues to use development funding through UK Export Finance to finance fossil fuel developments (amounting to 96% of UKEF funding over five years of £2.4 billion to developing countries). The ambition we need from Glasgow is an awful long way beyond the compromised, hesitant half steps taken by the UK so far.

We will set up new international partnerships to tackle deforestation and protect vital landscapes and wildlife corridors. We will establish a new £500 million Blue Planet Fund to
help protect our oceans from plastic pollution, warming sea temperatures and overfishing, and extend the Blue Belt programme to preserve the maritime environment. We will continue to lead diplomatic efforts to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030.

Half a billion pounds – to “protect our oceans from plastic pollution, warming sea temperatures and overfishing”.  Very grandiose ambitions for such a tiny amount of money. This is a quarter of what they propose to spend on filling in potholes in roads. The phrase “drop in the ocean” comes to mind. No budget for the “international partnerships to tackle deforestation.” It should be noted that planting lots of trees has recently been adopted by sections of the right internationally as an alternative to taking any other action on climate change.

Our first Budget will prioritise the environment: investing in R&D ; decarbonisation schemes ; new flood defences, which will receive £4 billion in new funding over the coming
years; electric vehicle infrastructure including a national plug-in network , and gigafactory; and clean energy. In the next decade, we will work with the market to deliver two million new high quality jobs in clean growth. We have ambitious targets:

All this is what might be called feelgood broad brush. There are no budgets or timescales.  “We will invest” an unspecified amount in all sorts of things that sound terribly good but we’re not going to say what they are or how much or what results we expect nor by when. “I shall do such things. what they are I know not.” *The key phrase is “we will work with the market”. Working with the market means that the interests of private sector profit trumps everything else and the state will help it along. This has not worked out well so far and there is little reason to suppose there will be any change in the immediate future. And we don’t have long.

Their record on this is not good. Once David Cameron decided to “clear out the green crap” Conservative policies in the renewable energy sector led to a third of the jobs being lost between 2014 and 2017. There is no sign in this manifesto of the either the policies required to reverse this nor the scale of investment that would be needed to get anywhere near the figure of two million jobs; which they seem to have sucked out of their thumbs by taking Labour’s promise and doubling it but with neither the required level of investment nor the sector by sector analysis of where these jobs would come from (or be). Labour’s plan has more precise and credible projections – 98,000 jobs building an additional 7,000 offshore and 2,000 onshore wind turbines. 450,000 jobs by upgrading every home in Britain by 2030 to cut emissions. 26,500 jobs in Hydrogen production in Yorkshire, the Humber and the north-east. 195,000 jobs in electric car production. 25,000 in nine new recycling sites.

Nor is there any reason to suppose that – if re-elected “the green crap” would sit around very long before being cleared out again. This is quite evident in their section on fracking – which they completely reversed before the manifesto even went out.

We placed a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.
Having listened to local communities, we have ruled out changes to the planning system. We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.

This is quite outrageous. Just two days after announcing their “ban”, not only did they re-designate it a “moratorium”, but government documents were released that foreshadowed proposals to allow fracking “at will” with no planning permission, making fracking “as easy as building a conservatory.” The shape of things to come if we allow them back in.

It is also indicated by their approach to transport.

We will support clean transport to ensure clean air, as well as setting strict new laws on air quality. We will consult on the earliest date by which we can phase out the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars.

Its tempting to say that this is “breathtaking”. They have been taken to court TWICE by the EU on air quality. They have been in government for TEN YEARS. Where have the “strict new laws” been all that time? More to the point – what will they say? Given that Conservative candidates often make opposition to clean air zones one of the points in their campaigns “strict” should not be taken at face value. “Support” for clean transport can mean anything from being pleased that there is a bit of it coming on stream to actually taking steps to ensure that there is. There is a definite big budget for building roads. Building new roads tends to increase motor traffic; the opposite of what we need. No budget for bus services, reopening or electrifying rail lines nor for making sure that the vehicles running on these roads are actually “clean”. The consultation on the earliest date to phase out sale of new petrol/diesel vehicles gives the game away. If you consider whose interests have been prioritised every time the Conservatives launch a consultation its clear that they will dance to the tune of the motor manufacturers, not set them the tough targets we need to actually make the transition.

This graphic summary of the financial projections for these “ambitious targets” listed here, alongside what they plan to spend on building roads and filling in potholes illustrates just how lacking in ambition they are. This is a deeply perverse set of priorities.

Conservative investment in Environment priorities

Their one relatively substantial commitment is this.

We will help lower energy bills by investing £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.

This is one twenty fifth of what Labour would do and would barely scratch the surface; so, by 2030 we’d still have the overwhelming majority of our homes leaking carbon at a ludicrous rate with people paying the energy companies through the nose for the privilege. Labour would fix that problem in both respects.

Home insulation investment

This graphic is a suitable illustration of the different scale of Party ambition. What we have with the Conservative manifesto is muddling on with business as usual, kicking the can further down a road that we are about to run out of, a little tweak here, a little tweak there, but nothing that recognises either the scale of the crisis nor the level of urgency with which it has to be tackled because of its deep seated aversion to the necessary state action.

*Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin. In fact, it was a letter from Russel Wallace that persuaded Darwin to publish, out of fear that Russel Wallace would do it first. He lived for a while in Grays in the early 1870s building one of the world’s first concrete houses, later used as a convent (!) and now converted into flats. The grounds of the house included a 16 acre walled arboretum along a steep hill which has been disused and run wild for over a hundred years – a place of mystery and darkness for generations of local children.

*Shakespeare. King Lear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s