Election 2019: For the first time, climate change is a key issue

The sustained climate mobilisations since last year have brought the climate crisis to the fore, not just in daily conversation, but crucially in government policy circles as well. The UK parliament declared a climate change emergency last May following big protests from Extinction Rebellion and the School Strikes for Climate. Earlier this month, eleven thousand scientists in 153 countries pressed that global warming should no longer be ignored and that we must accept huge changes in the way we live and manage the economy or it will be unavoidable and more will suffer in addition to those who are already dealing with current impacts from climate change.

There are strong indications that there are more people now who are increasingly understanding the uncomfortable truths about the causes of climate change and more prepared to accept that drastic actions are needed, especially from here in the UK. A recent   YouGov poll showed that a majority of the UK public, 56% of those polled, will support a total decarbonisation of the economy by 2030 to tackle the climate crisis. This means that the increased awareness of the scale of the climate crisis is encouraging people in the country to back radical policy solutions.

2019 as Climate Election

This is the first time that climate change has become a major election concern and is defining how people will vote, making the 2019 vote a climate election apart from an election on Brexit. That’s why we are backing the call for a TV debate specifically on climate.

While we wait for the exact details in the manifestos, the main parties have already made climate pledges in recent months. The Labour Party has put forward the most radical environmental programme in its history. Its “green industrial revolution” agenda aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. The Green Party also has a target date of 2030. The Liberal Democrats have set a target of 2045 and have pledged to ensure 80 per cent of electricity is produced by renewable sources by 2030. The Conservatives promise net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and recently announced a moratorium on fracking as their own version of radical climate policy.

This policy though was widely criticised three days later after it became clear that it may merely be a temporary pause, after a released civil service document from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government stating that “future applications will be considered on their own merits”, instead of a complete ban. Environmental campaigners and the communities around active fracking sites have fought back hard against fracking and are demanding an end to it as the activity causes earthquakes in Lancashire. Climate justice groups have been saying for a while now that fracking causes climate change based on comprehensive studies.

Interestingly, the poll commissioned by Green New Deal UK, a non-party-aligned campaign group, found that 47% of Conservative voters back a zero-emissions target by 2030 while 16% agree with the party’s target of reaching that by 2050. Among respondents, 32 per cent support a target of net-zero emissions by 2025; 24 per cent support a target of 2030, and only 8 per cent say the government should aim for 2050. Support for the more radical 2025 target was higher among Remain voters and young people; it was also heavily concentrated in London, compared to the North and Midlands.

What do we want to see in the election manifestos of competing parties?

Since the first World Climate Conference held in Geneva in 1979, multiple global institutions have already warned about climate change. As years add to the still on-going climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which will hold its 25th Conference of Parties (COP) next month, numerous global days of action and marches in various cities have already been held. In the same period greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. 

Attitudes are changing and there is a new outlook that addressing climate should not be an abstract exercise. We must act now, but we must also do it right and take adequate actions to the scale of the challenge. Part of the reason climate action has been so weak is that the fossil fuel lobby has been successful in twisting and delaying it. A new campaign plans to take on Europe’s fossil fuel lobby. There has been much discussion also about curbing growth and rethinking the kind of progress we need. Even the Economist, a staunch supporter of neoliberal ideas, wrote: “the market cannot solve climate change by itself”. 

Drastic cuts in fossil fuel use and the power of the fossil fuel industry

Apart from the competing plans about when the UK will reach net zero carbon emissions, we want them to clearly say where those emissions will be cut.

We want to see concrete actions in cutting fossil fuel use and reduced influence of big oil, gas and coal on politics. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world’s five biggest publicly-traded oil and gas companies (three of them headquartered in Europe) have spent more than $1 billion on misleading branding and lobbying.  Research by Friends of the Earth Europe found that the big five and their fossil fuel-lobby groups employ 200 Brussels lobbyists, have spent €251 million on lobbying the EU since 2010 and have met high-level officials in the Juncker commission 327 times (according to their self-declared figures and those of the commission). In the UK, the government has even held a cabinet meeting in the offices of Shell

For a long time now, the US and the UK governments have been using billions in public money to help these companies (globally fossil fuel subsidies in 2015 were $4.7 trillion). This money could be redirected to the green transition. It is also not just about redirecting investment, but about social/public ownership of renewables. We want to see concrete plans that will coordinate an immediate phase out of domestic extraction and imports of oil, gas and coal to back all the net zero carbon targets.  If this does not happen there will merely be a continuation of the growing renewable energy sector co-existing with fossil fuels. Phasing out fossil fuels is what matters in practice.

Stopping trade deals that will impact on climate

The UK, apart from being influential in fossil fuel politics, is also a major trading power. The historic and current role of the UK in charting the course of the global political economic order has helped produce the current trade and investment practices. One of the biggest threats from trade that will impact on climate solutions is the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) that is already showing its power to weaken laws designed to fight climate change.

In 2015 an open letter from a group of UN experts addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concerns over a number of free trade and investment agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Their statement points to the secret nature of drawing up and negotiating many of these agreements and the potential adverse impacts of these agreements on human rights and the environment.

They warned about the “chilling effects” of investor protection clauses contained in the draft TTIP trade pact. Global Justice Now together with allies here in the UK and Europe have won the campaign against TTIP. However, the dominant thrust of the Conservative government is to include ISDS in all new trade deals that the UK plans to sign post-Brexit, including the US-UK trade pact.

We do not want the continuing advance of the ISDS system, which will lead to corporate abuses of power at the expense of our climate and general planetary health. As it is now, environmental regulations being put in place to address climate change are the fastest growing cause of ISDS cases being filed first against countries in the global south, but now increasingly in Europe too. It is not surprising that mining and energy companies are now the most frequent users of ISDS mechanisms. 

All this and more will ensure that the climate sections of the party manifestos, expected to be released this week and next, will be scrutinised more closely than ever.


Photo: A placard in Parliament Square during the Global Climate Strike in September 2019. Credit: Garry Knight

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