Green Tories? Don’t Believe the Hype

by Adrienne Buller

6 November 2019

[Kristian Buus]

A leaked briefing note has revealed Tory HQ’s attack lines on climate policy for this winter’s General Election. In it, HQ cites two key figures to argue the case that the Conservative Party is the party of climate action. First, they claim that during their decade in government there has been a 25% reduction in emissions, and second, that thanks to their leadership, renewables have been “boosted… to record levels”. It should come as no surprise that these claims are dubious at best. 

For context, these revelations came in a week of bewildering pivots from the Tories, who in a matter of days have:

1) Hired a fracking lobbyist to draft their manifesto;

2) Announced a “ban” – that is actually a temporary pause – on UK fracking;

3) Proclaimed, “Only Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have a proper plan to continue reducing carbon emissions faster than any other G20 country”; and

4) Remained conspicuously silent on participating in a climate debate to outline said plan. 

While many might reasonably find this series of events confusing – directly contradictory, even – this pattern is entirely on brand for a party which, across all policy areas, remains steadfastly committed to a programme of cutting investment in essential areas before subsequently engaging in extensive back-patting for re-establishing a fraction of the investment they cut in the first place. Alternatively, when this strategy is unavailable, the party is equally willing to take credit for things that have simply happened without – or in spite of – its intervention.

Matt Hancock’s frankly admirable ability to get through a GMB interview celebrating a campaign promise of ‘20,000 new police on the streets’ while refusing to acknowledge the 21,000 police officers cut under the Tory government is an embodiment of this practice. However, while his diversions might be seen through easily enough, the Conservative Party’s ability to skew facts on climate and energy policy in their favour is far more effective, and far more concerning. 

After all, we have cut our emissions by over a quarter in just ten years, haven’t we? And do renewables not occupy a higher proportion of the UK’s energy mix than ever before? In a world of expertly cherry-picked statistics, maybe. But these figures disguise an alarming pattern of cuts, fossil fuel subsidies and punitive energy policies that have sabotaged progress on climate change while disproportionately harming the working class.

Part of the reason the above figures are so compelling is that it can be challenging to disaggregate exactly who, and which policies, are responsible for the decline in the UK’s emissions and the surge in renewable energy’s share of our electricity supply. 

To do so, it’s first important to recognise that the 25% figure refers solely to the UK’s domestic emissions – that is, emissions originating from activities within our borders, like driving and electricity generation. But limiting our accounting in this way severely misrepresents our true carbon footprint. As a consequence of deindustrialisation, the UK has become a net importer of goods; so rather than achieving purposeful emissions reductions through decisive policy, the UK has simply ‘outsourced’ a significant portion of its emissions to the countries producing the goods we import and consume, while neglecting to log these in our accounts – a practice the Labour party has committed to ending. When these ‘consumption emissions’ are accounted for, the UK’s total emissions have hardly decreased in two decades.  

Those reductions that have been made are broadly limited to passive changes in electricity generation, as increasingly uneconomical coal plants are retired in line with their projected lifespans and simply not replaced. Meanwhile, emissions from transport have stagnated for thirty years. Emissions from the UK’s share of international aviation – within which a majority of flights are taken by a fraction of the population – have more than doubled since 1990, and are conveniently not counted. 

So it would seem the Tories’ first claim to climate excellence is – shockingly – a bit of a fudge. But what to make of the second? Renewable energy uptake has consistently blown past expectations over the past decade; just three weeks ago it was announced that renewables had provided more electricity to the grid than all fossil fuel sources combined for a full quarter of the year.

However, the typical lag of five to 10 years taken between policy announcement, investment, and major energy infrastructure projects coming online means the Conservative government’s much-touted renewables “boom” is more than likely a reflection of policies derived from 2008’s Climate Change and Energy Acts, introduced by *checks notes* Labour. 

In fact, the UK renewables industry has recently teetered into decline. Over the past decade the Tories have taken remarkable strides to sabotage the industry, including but not limited to: revoking the Climate Change Levy exemption for renewables; ending subsidies for onshore wind; terminating the Renewables Obligation; and scrapping Feed in Tariffs.* Collectively, these policies have culminated in the lowest rates of investment in the renewable energy industry in a decade.

Thus, both achievements presented in Tory HQ’s briefing document are not only not the result of Tory policies, but rather, they appear to have occurred in spite of them. Indeed, the policies flagged above represent just the tip of the iceberg. In a decade, the Tories also managed to privatise the Green Investment Bank; introduce a legally questionable ‘capacity market’ that has broadly served as a cover for awarding energy contracts to the natural gas industry; failed to deliver on 24 of the 25 Committee on Climate Change 2018 recommendations for getting on track with the government’s own Clean Growth Strategy; and generally been five times more likely to vote against climate action in parliament.

To distract from this catalogue of failures in the election, the Tories are now advocating a ‘Future Homes Standard’ to replace the Zero Carbon Homes standard which they gutted. They’ve also decided they’ll meet the net zero 2050 target by delivering scalable nuclear fusion in 2040 – offering no evidence that this is possible – rather than taking any of the substantive actions to cut emissions recommended by their own advisers.

Crucially, though, Conservative policies over the past decade haven’t just presided over negligible emissions reductions and plummeting investment in a fledgling renewables industry. Rather, with every policy, this government has managed to penalise working people and families. It has scrapped Labour’s Zero Carbon Homes standard, which would have ensured lower energy bills through more energy efficient homes. It has severely cut funding for public transport, with the steepest declines in bus routes and regions outside London, disproportionately impacting the working class. It has overseen 3.5 million Brits in living in fuel poverty with an associated death toll of 10,000 per year.

This is why a Labour government is more crucial than ever. Reducing our emissions cannot happen with a series of technocratic proposals that green our infrastructure while placing the burden of costs on working people. Rather, tackling the climate crisis requires transformative solutions founded in economic justice, and which materially improve people’s lives while cutting CO2. This is the essence of the Green New Deal, and only Labour will deliver it.  

Adrienne Buller is Policy Director of Labour for a Green New Deal.

*This article has been amended to remove a reference to the 94% drop in home solar panel installations between March and April 2019. Fullfact have published guidance that Labour’s use of the statistic has been misleading because the disparity between installation figures has been especially stark between March and April every year since 2013 because of how government tariff schemes work. However, the guidance does recognise evidence to suggest the government’s decision to scrap subsidy schemes has led to a reduction in solar installations, which have stagnated.

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