Which party would be best for the environment if it wins the 2015 general election?

Although environmental policy hasn’t received too much coverage in the run-up to the 2015 general election, whoever forms the next government will have some key decisions to make about Britain’s climate change policies over the coming years. Which party is offering the best deal for future generations?Sunflower against industrial background

Before he became Prime Minister following the 2010 general election, David Cameron famously claimed that he would lead “the greenest government ever” if he got elected. Five years on from that election, the environment seems to be receiving less attention than it did then as the political focus has shifted towards a number of other urgent challenges facing Britain, particularly the economy and the wave of political instability sweeping the world.

However, the environment remains a key intergenerational issue, and whoever forms the next government after the 2015 general election will need to make a number of key decisions on issues such as the next round of international climate change negotiations and replacing Britain’s ageing energy-generating capacity. With this in mind, where do the major parties stand on the big green issues? A recent analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Analysis (IPPR) provides some clue.

The road to Paris 2015

One date that is already looming on the horizon for the 2015 general election victors is the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Paris in early December, where the organisers hope that a new global deal to avert climate change can finally be agreed on by the world’s major powers.

Although not all of the parties have gone into the same degree of detail in discussing how they would approach the negotiations, this issue does appear in the party manifestos. The Conservatives offer the least detail, but significantly they remain committed to finding a way of keeping global temperature increases to below 20C above pre-industrial levels, which many experts believe is the threshold above which catastrophic damage would be done to the Earth’s climate system.

Labour have gone into more detail: they want a global deal to include the long-term aim of eliminating all carbon pollution by the second half of the 21st century, to set five-year reviews when global climate targets can be evaluated and made more ambitious if necessary, and to achieve common global rules for monitoring and verifying reductions in emissions. The Liberal Democrats go into few details in their manifestos other than saying they would make global climate diplomacy a priority in office, but they do specify that they would seek a separate global deal to end net planetary deforestation by 2020, which is an important contributor to climate change.

Of course, much of the UK’s climate change policy is affected by Europe – the EU has a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, and the UK has more weight if it speaks as part of the EU in international negotiations – so the possibility that Britain could end up leaving the EU during the next parliament would have a major impact on climate change policy.

New energy

One of the biggest challenges facing whichever party wins the 2015 general election will be solving Britain’s looming energy crisis, as the lack of investment in power capacity over recent years means that the national grid could have almost zero surplus capacity next winter. This relates to the broader issue of meeting Britain’s clean energy targets, as domestic power generation is responsible for a substantial share of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The parties differ substantially in terms of how they would shape Britain’s future energy mixture. The Conservatives appear to be opposed to both onshore wind farms and solar energy – partly because of planning disputes over the installation of renewable generating capacity in rural areas – and have expressed a desire to encourage offshore wind farms instead. Labour offers few details with regard to what their ideal energy mix would look like, but claim they would create a new “energy security board” – presumably an expert commission of some type – to recommend what Britain’s future energy mix should look like. The Lib Dems appear to be the most ambitious party when it comes to promoting renewable energy: they’ve committed themselves to generating 60% of Britain’s total energy capacity from renewables by 2030.

Some of the biggest differences between the parties emerge when it comes to the issue of “fracking” – extracting oil and gas from shale rock by fracturing it under high pressure. The Conservatives are outright in favour of the fracking industry, while Labour say they would allow it as long as high environmental standards were met. Interestingly, the Green Party – who most would view as the standard-bearers on environmental policy – say they would seek to have fracking completely banned if they were in power, showing the hostility which it inspires among most environmentalists.

This is just a brief snapshot of where the major parties stand on the climate, but it is clear that there are major differences. Whoever wins power in the 2015 general election will need to make a number of big decisions about climate policy, which future generations could be feeling the effects of for years to come.