GE 2015: Who will be the next ‘greenest government ever’? Nobody, probably.

Ed Atkins, Environment, Energy and Resilience (PhD)

Ed Atkins, Environment, Energy and Resilience (PhD)

In this election, rhetoric reigns supreme over policy pledges and manifestos. The result is the placing of certain story lines at the centre of election strategy, often at the expense of policy. We have all heard about Ed Miliband’s weirdness, Grant Shapps’ alter-ego and Nicola Sturgeon’s problematic Scottishness – but we are yet to hear about the environment.

Whilst the Green Surge may have pointed to the centrality of the environment in many of our political views and desires, it appears that the environment pledges of 2015’s manifestos have become embroiled in political decisions, electoral tactics and the influence of other policy areas.   The pledges of the parties all demonstrate the close-relation of energy and ecology with the key political issues of this election – such as housing, the cost-of-living and the EU. In this light, we must question how many of these policies are of a purely environmental nature – and are not social, economic and political moves dressed up as environmental pledges.

It’s no secret that at the heart of Labour’s policy is energy reform. Energy bills will be frozen until 2017; the ‘Big Six’ energy businesses are to be separated and tariffs simplified.  A hypothetical Liberal Democrat government shall also lobby to reform the energy sector. However, these pledges are fundamentally rooted in social policy and rhetoric based on affordability, rather than pollution; and fat-cats, instead of sustainability. This is further evident in the relatively small number of environmental pledges within the Labour manifesto, which is most-notable for the complete absence of the word ‘fracking’ – in contrast with the other parties, all of whom have to something to say about shale gas.

The UK leaving the European Union – the main premise of UKIP policy – shall result in the departure from the Common Agricultural Policy; the Common Fisheries Policy and EU directives related to emission-management and the Emissions Trading scheme.  Similarly, the ‘Kippers’ aim to rejuvenate the ‘indigenous’ coal industry, as a means to achieve the political goal of energy-independence, will have regressive environmental consequences. Yet, these policies are primarily political choices that represent UKIP’s brand of euro-scepticism that has dominated popular political rhetoric. The planned repeal of the 2008 Climate Change Act has less clear motives.

The rise of Farage’s UKIP has exacerbated the internal problems of the Conservative Party and the subsequent swerve to satisfy elements of the Party is evident in environmental policy surveyed. A newly-returned Conservative government will provide Parliament with the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote. With a (slim) majorityof the population continuing to support the ban on fox-hunting, this may well prove controversial. Similarly: badger culls will continue, despite last year’s hullabaloo.  Additionally, all public subsidies for onshore wind farms shall be ended, replaced by a focus on off-shore wind power and solar panels. This policy-shift comes despite onshore wind’s affordability, as shown in the recent government auctions for new project contracts and can only be seen as a means to please those who see the infrastructure as a “blight” on the landscape.

Perceived as the greener half of the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats have been vocal in their environmental achievements of the past five years and this has continued, with the party promising to “put the environment at the heart of government policy.” This has resulted in the creation of a competition between Nick Clegg’s party and the Green Party for the votes of the environmentally-friendly left. Both parties will empower community-run energy cooperatives; will pledge increased funding in research for low-carbon technologies; and both pledge the eventual transition to a zero-carbon economy.

However, there are also important divisions that provide a distance between the two – nuclear power stations shall continue to play a role under a hypothetical Lib Dem government but shall be phased out by Natalie Bennett’s party; and the degree of investment in sustainability by the respective parties – with the Greens pledging vast amounts for recycling infrastructure, alternative energy and environmental research.

Yes, there are important similarities throughout many of the manifestos. Whatever the results of 7th May, we can expect to see: increased flood defences; an expanding infrastructure for recycling; commitments to energy efficiency, increased regulation, and decreased emissions; and the protection of green space and wildlife.

However, with no party even close to a majority, it is likely that parties shall be forced into negotiation after 7th May.  Under the coalition government, environmental policy acted as window-dressing – routinely  squeezed out by austerity and deficit reduction.  Within this brave new world of coalition politics, we must read manifesto pledges not as electoral promises but as signals for future negotiations.

With this election already pointing to the supremacy of rhetoric over manifesto and flagship environmental policies already swiftly-influenced by other more-political concerns, it is unknown how many of these policies may survive the political dance around the negotiating table. The danger is that, within this world of tough decisions, it may be the environment that is quickly forgotten.

This blog feeds in to a General Election special of the Environmental Open Hour series – for which, you can find more details here.

Ed Atkins tweets @edatkins_

The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.