Voting is well underway and it is now not long to wait before the new Labour leader is announced. There has been vicious debate about who should shape the party’s future, and the insults have flown. Climate and environmental issues have taken a back seat to economic and social policy in the Labour election. However, the new leader will have to take a position on climate in the run up to Paris, and the majority Conservative government appears to be going backwards on green issues. So what we can expect from the new leader of the opposition?
The runt of the nomination process (getting through during the last minutes with 36 compared with the necessary 35 votes) Corbyn has now become the front-runner of the contest. He is far ahead in the polls – if anyone believes such things anymore – but has also attracted by far the most media attention. Corbyn’s green policies are however, mixed. On the positive side he is outspoken in support of solar power, community energy and energy efficiency. His 10 point delivery strategy states “action on climate change – for the long-term interest of the planet rather than the short-term interests of corporate profits” as the third priority.
He has taken a dig at David Cameron’s hypocrisy on the environment, saying “we need democratic government acting in the long-term interests of people, not husky-hugging photo opportunities”. Overall his views on local environmental issues and global climate change, as well as the fact he rides a bike everywhere, make him seem rather green.
But he is guilty of a huge hypocrisy of his own. Despite accepting the need to combat climate change, Corbyn argues that we should also re-open coal mines and increase the combustion of UK’s coal: the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. This makes no sense for either climate or air quality reasons. According to the NHS, toxic air pollution from power stations kills 2,500 in Britain each year. If he is pursuing coal for energy security reasons, shale gas (far cleaner than coal) would be much a more sensible option: but Corbyn opposes fracking.
Burnham led the ballot and has gone further on policy promises than the other candidates by releasing a manifesto of his key priorities. In it he describes climate change (along with insecurity and inequality) as one of the “giant challenges of the 21st century”. Burnham’s main focus on energy and climate issues is renewables. He promises that under his leadership the UK would develop “the most ambitious renewables strategy in the world”. And he is highly critical of the Conservatives’ current renewable strategy: “it can’t be the right signal for the future, we cannot keep going after fossil fuels at a time when government is cutting the subsidies for renewables”. However he does not differentiate the various renewable technologies; he appears to regard anything called renewable as good (which it is not).
Burnham has been outspoken on fracking. Although not saying he is in complete opposition, he promises a moratorium until there is evidence that fracking is safe. He does not explain how evidence will be gathered during a moratorium.
Being pro-renewables is a very positive trait in a leader. But only 7% of the energy consumed in the UK in 2014 came from renewable sources, so it will take many decades to expand renewable output to anything like energy consumption. A credible leader needs to say what other low-carbon options – such as shale, nuclear and carbon capture and storage – should be supported in the meantime. Burnham does not.
Cooper came second to Burnham in the ballot but is one of the leaders on green issues. She acknowledges that climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the UK, and promises to make tackling it a top priority for Labour. She would set a target of spending 3% of GDP on research and development, not only to boost employment but also to accelerate technologies that could tackle climate change. She is very pro-CCS as one of these technologies, but is also in favour of eco-towns and local community decarbonisation.
She has been outspoken in her critique of the Tory’s climate policy saying “David Cameron’s hug-a-husky but scrap a wind farm is setting us back years”. She has also attacked Amber Rudd, the Energy and Climate secretary, saying that Rudd has “bought into conspiracy theories that action to stop climate change can be ‘cover for anti-growth, anti-capitalist, proto-socialism’”.
Although outspoken on many climate priorities and solutions, Cooper has not backed up all of her ideals. For example, she is pro-airport expansion and has made no attempt to describe how she would mitigate the environmental consequences of increased aviation.
Although at the bottom of the rankings, Kendall is the candidate most willing to take Labour out of its comfort zone. She is also the most pro-EU, which is sensible for the green agenda as much of the regulation of pollution and energy wastage comes from the EU. She believes we need the EU to pool national resources and cooperate over global climate change. This is partly an attack on Jeremy Corbyn who has refused to rule out voting to leave the EU.
Kendall has spoken frequently about the severity of climate change, saying it is the same level of threat as Islamic extremism. She champions the need for green and low-carbon growth and investment: “I will challenge George Osborne’s myth that we need to choose between the economy and the environment.”
However, despite being pro general low-carbon business and decentralised energy, she has not ventured many specific environmental policies on exactly how she would achieve sustainability and combat climate change.
Overall there does not seem to be any environmental and climate champion in the mix. With Paris coming up and National Grid warning that the UK is now worryingly at risk of electricity blackouts, Labour will need a strong position on both climate and energy. Unfortunately there is not much indication from what any candidate has said so far of what this position will be. However depending on your priorities they each have something to offer – and all seemingly would offer a much needed u-turn from the way the Conservatives are currently taking us.