Policies on climate change: Liberal Democrats, Labour, Green Party, Extinction Rebellion
By Duncan Brack
(Updated 27 November 2019 from earlier version)
The Liberal Democrats propose:
• An emergency ten-year programme of action to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by more than half by 2030 - minimising the UK's impacts on the climate as fast as possible.
• A comprehensive plan to decarbonise every sector of the economy and get to net zero by 2045 at the latest. This covers all sectors: power, heat, transport, aviation, industry, and farming and land use.
• A plan not only for what to do but how to do it - including reforming regulation and frameworks for finance and investment, skills, innovation and industrial support, and reshaping the institutions of British government, central and local.
Without these three elements, no plan for net zero is credible. As the IFS said, 'There is no value in politicians simply competing on targets. They need to spell out the policies that will actually be required to meet the targets and be clear about how the immediate costs will be met.'
• Labour does not have an overall net zero policy. Their targets cover only about half of total UK emissions.
• The Green Party has 2030 as their net zero target date, but in fact their policies do not support that. In reality, their proposals would probably have a similar impact to ours.
This briefing is designed to assist candidates and campaigners understand the key differences between Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green Party policies on climate change. It contains pages on:
1. Why net zero targets are difficult to meet
2. Labour's policies on climate change
3. The Green Party's policies on climate change
4. Extinction Rebellion's three demands
5. Summary of Liberal Democrat plans to cut emissions
See here for a comprehensive comparison of parties' policies on climate change.
This briefing has been produced by members of the Liberal Democrats' climate change policy working group.
If you have any questions or requests for further information, please email Duncan Brack on firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Why net zero targets are difficult to meet
To date the only sector in which the UK has made significant emissions cuts is in power generation, by phasing out coal and increasing renewables - largely thanks to Liberal Democrats in government.
Thanks to Tory inaction, there has been little or no progress in any other sector.
In many cases solutions are available but will take time to implement - e.g. replacing petrol and diesel cars (current ownership level 36 million) with electric vehicles (current ownership 220,000). In some cases technological solutions are not yet available - e.g. some industrial processes, or aviation fuel. In many cases we will have to rely on people changing their behaviour - e.g. switching to public transport, walking or cycling, flying less or changing their diet. This means that reducing emissions will take time, and in some cases - e.g. farming - it is impossible to reduce completely to zero.
So we need to invest in ways of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The best way is planting trees, but they take time to grow, and won't meet all the UK's needs. Some technological solutions are currently at pilot stage, and will take time to develop and be deployed at scale.
This is why near-term net zero targets like 2025 (Extinction Rebellion) or 2030 (Greens) are impossible to meet. Most of the main environmental NGOs support 2045. Setting a target date for net zero emissions is essential but by itself is not enough; urgent action to set the economy on the path towards it is more critical, and that's what we should be debating in this election.
Do we have 12 years to stop climate change?
You may come across people claiming that in 2018 the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that we had 12 years to stop climate change - which is often taken to mean that we have to reach net zero by 2030.
In fact the IPCC report didn't say that at all. It said that to keep global warming below 1.5°C, carbon dioxide emissions (not all greenhouse gases) had to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. For other greenhouse gases, net zero would need to be achieved by the mid-2060s.
Our proposals see all emissions fall by 70% from 2010 to 2030, and reach net zero by 2045, so we are well in advance of the IPCC's recommendations.
Can we cut emissions by 7.6% a year?
The UNEP Emissions Gap report released on 26 November drew attention to the failure of most governments to come up with adequate plans to reduce emissions and pointed out that if the world is to keep within the 1.5°C target, global emissions have to fall by 7.6% a year from 2020 to 2030. Our proposals see UK emissions falling by 8% a year (compound) over that period.
Do we support the Green New Deal?
The term 'Green New Deal' originated in the US, and is generally held to mean a package of measures to tackle climate change and reduce inequality. Liberal Democrats wholly support these aims. We don't use the term itself because it means so many different things to different people: both the Labour and Green Party manifestos, for example, claim to be the 'Green New Deal'.
2 Labour's policies on climate change
• Labour does not have a comprehensive net zero emissions target; their targets only cover about of UK emissions, and they have no overarching plan across all sectors.
• Labour's obsession with nationalisation and centralisation will waste vast sums of money and significant amounts of time spent reorganising the industries involved.
• Labour does not have a comprehensive net zero emissions target.
• Labour aims to 'put the UK on track for a net-zero-carbon energy system within the 2030s - and go faster if credible pathways can be found' (p. 14).
• But by 'energy' they only mean power and heat in buildings (including industrial use but not emissions from industrial processes). They therefore ignore about half UK emissions. There are no targets for any other sector - including transport, industry, and agriculture and land use (on p. 24 they say that they 'aim to achieve net-zero-carbon food production in Britain by 2040', but include no policy proposals to achieve it).
• In general they provide less detail than we do. Where they do set out climate policies they are often not very different to ours, with the exceptions noted below.
Obsession with nationalisation
• Labour would nationalise National Grid, the electricity distribution companies, the supply arms of the 'Big 6' energy companies and the railways.
• This would not only be enormously disruptive and ruinously costly; it would be pointless, as in reality, ambitious environmental and consumer aims can be achieved through tougher regulation. A centralised planned economy is no way to tackle the environmental crisis.
• Continued support for nuclear power, even though it is now considerably more expensive than renewables. Their target of 90% of electricity from low-carbon sources by 2030 includes nuclear as well as renewables (their background paper, 30 by 2030, envisages at least two new nuclear stations as well as Hinkley Point C, currently under construction). (Our target is 80% renewables; most of the rest is legacy nuclear power, but we believe that there is currently no economic or environmental case for the construction of any further nuclear stations.)
• No target date for rail electrification (ours is 2035).
• No measures to reduce emissions from flying or to stop airport expansion; they promise only to 'examine fiscal and regulatory options'.
• No measures to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (essential for any net zero commitment) other than 'an ambitious programme of tree planting' (no target rate).
3 Green Party's policies on climate change
• There is much to admire in the Green Party's policies, but they do not add up to a credible programme to achieve their aim of net zero by 2030.
• Their proposals will not reduce emissions to zero by 2030, and they do not propose adequate measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere to compensate.
• The Green Party's proposals don't match their net zero target.
• Their manifesto aims to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. While there is good detail in many of their policy proposals (though much less in areas other than climate and environment), they will not achieve net zero, at least not by 2030.
• This is mainly because their policies will not eliminate emissions completely, and they do not have credible proposals to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate.
• In reality, the impact of their proposals is likely not to be very different to ours - immediate cuts from electricity and heat, and slower progress on transport, industrial processes and agriculture and land use.
Shortcomings in Green Party policies
• For heat in buildings, they have a similar approach to us for energy efficiency, but very little detail on zero-carbon heating technologies, and no mention at all of hydrogen, which seems likely to play a major role (but will take time to develop). So emissions from heating will not be eliminated completely by 2030.
• For road transport, they would end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 (same as us), and provide unspecified incentives to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles. But if they are to achieve zero emissions by 2030, an average of 3.6 million cars and light vans would have to be replaced by EVs in each of the next ten years (or an extremely large number of car owners would have to give up car ownership). Given that just 60,000 new EVs were sold in 2018, this is not going to happen - and they do not propose to take fossil fuel cars off the road in 2030. So emissions from road transport will not be zero by 2030.
• For aviation, their proposals are very similar to ours, which will reduce the demand for flying but will not reduce emissions to zero by 2030. The only way they could achieve this is to ban flying, which they do not propose.
• For agriculture, they will phase in a 'tax on meat and dairy products over the next ten years' - but unless this stops people eating meat and dairy altogether (and stops farmers exporting them), emissions will not fall to zero; and farm emissions do not only derive from livestock.
• Some of the remaining emissions could be compensated for by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They have a slightly faster tree planting aim than us (700 million over 10 years compared to our 600 million), but these trees will not grow enough over 10 years to absorb enough carbon to offset the sources of emissions listed above; although young trees grow faster, mature trees, because they are larger, absorb much more carbon. In the long run we will need technological solutions as well, but the Green Party manifesto is completely silent on these.
4 Extinction Rebellion
• Extinction Rebellion have done a fantastic job of raising the profile of climate issues, but their net zero by 20205 demand is hopelessly unrealistic.
Extinction Rebellion has three demands:
1. Tell the truth.
Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
• We agree with this completely. In February 2019, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran led the first Parliamentary debate in over two years on climate change, in a cross-party effort with the Green MP Caroline Lucas, and called for the declaration of a climate emergency; the House of Commons finally voted for this in May 2019. Most Conservative MPs were absent, and the government itself has not declared a climate emergency.
2. Act Now.
Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
• Net zero by 2025 is impossible. Even if every citizen stopped flying and eating meat by 2025, replaced their car with an EV or stopped owning a car (requiring 36 million petrol and diesel cars to be scrapped) and replaced their household heating system with electric heating (requiring them to rip out their boiler and radiators), this would still not be enough. The capacity in terms of staff and equipment to insulate every building, electrify every rail line, replace every industrial plant and replace all coal and gas stations with renewables does not exist and cannot be developed over just five years. There is no prospect of planting enough trees or developing enough new technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate.
• To be generous, XR has helped to place pressure on politicians to accelerate the implementation of net zero policies. To be critical, XR's aim of net zero by 2025 is an impossible fantasy that makes achievable programmes look conservative.
3. Beyond Politics.
Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens' Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
• Our manifesto commits us to 'establish UK and local Citizens' Climate Assemblies to engage the public in tackling the climate emergency'. We agree with XR that this would be a valuable role, and there has been good experience in other countries, such as Ireland.
• However, XR has also talked about giving the Citizens' Assembly decision-making powers, requiring government to implement its decisions (possibly only if they achieve a minimum percentage in the vote). If this is what they mean, we disagree; those who take decisions on behalf of the people must be accountable to them and removable by election.
5 Summary of Liberal Democrat plans to cut emissions
(see manifesto pp 39-49 for more detail)
|Sector||% of UK 2017 emissions||Lib Dem 2030 target||Key policies|
|Heat in buildings||14%||90% cut||• Emergency programme to insulate all Britain's homes by 2030, cutting emissions and fuel bills and ending fuel poverty
• All new buildings to be built to zero-carbon standard by 2021
• Zero-Carbon Heat Strategy to determine best way forward for heating (hydrogen, electric heating, biogas …)
|Electricity||21%||90% cut||• 80 per cent renewable electricity by 2030 (most of the rest will be legacy nuclear), scrap Conservative restrictions on solar and wind
• Expand community and decentralised energy
• Ban fracking
|Surface transport||24%||50% cut||• Ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 (the average lifespan of a car is 15 years, so almost all petrol and diesel cars should be off the road by 2045)
• More support for electric vehicle charging points
• Invest in public transport (buses, trams and railways) and walking and cycling
• Convert the rail network to ultra-low-emission technology (electric or hydrogen) by 2035
|Aviation and maritime transport||8%
(but increasing faster than any other sector)
|25% cut||• Reform air passenger duty for international flights to focus on those who fly the most, while reducing costs for those who take one or two international return flights per year
• Place moratorium on development of new runways (net) in the UK
• Oppose any expansion of Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted and any new airport in the Thames Estuary
|Industry||21%||33% cut||• Support carbon capture and storage for industrial processes (e.g. iron, steel, cement) and new lowcarbon processes for cement and steel production
• (Proposals for electricity and heat also help to reduce emissions from industry)
|Agriculture and land use||13%||25% cut||• Restore peatlands and native woodland, helping to absorb carbon, protect against floods, improve water quality and protect habitats
• National Food Strategy to promote production and consumption of healthy, sustainable and affordable food and cut down on food waste
|Remove 13% of total emissions (% steadily increases)||• Plant 60 million trees a year and introduce equirements for the greater use of sustainably arvested wood in construction
• Support innovation in CO2 removal technologies
|Total||60% cut from 2017
(equivalent to 75% cut from 1990 baseline)
|• Legally binding target of net zero by 2045 at the latest|
|Other key policies||• Statutory duty on all local authorities to produce a Zero Carbon Strategy, and devolve powers and funding to enable every council to implement it.
• Establish Department for Climate Change and Natural Resources, appoint a cabinet-level Chief Secretary for Sustainability in the Treasury to coordinate government-wide action
• Establish UK and local Citizens' Climate Assemblies to engage the public
• Create new Green Investment Bank with £5 billion capital, regulate financial services to encourage green investments
• Require companies to set climate targets
• Increase government expenditure on climate and environmental objectives, reaching at least five per cent of the total within five years.
• Provide Just Transition funding for areas and communities negatively affected by the net zero transition