The landscape of green policies ahead of the 2024 election


Green policies

With a general election expected in the second half of the year, and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt hinting it will be in October, Andrea Lockerbie asks what this means for the UK’s green policies.

Since January, independent think tank Green Alliance, which is focused on political leadership for the environment, has been running monthly Election Countdown webinars where a range of panellists, including lobby journalists and industry organisations, have been discussing the interplay of green issues and politics.

Chris Venables, deputy director of politics and partnerships at Green Alliance explained at the start of the series: “What happens this year in British politics really matters for the future of the planet.

“The decisions made by the leaders of the main parties on their policies and approach to the climate and nature crisis really will materially impact on the ability of the UK to deliver on its important environmental goals.”

In March, Green Alliance updated its Net Zero policy tracker, which monitors the government’s progress. According to the tracker, the UK remains off track to meet its net zero climate commitment by 2050 and leadership is lacking: “We have not yet seen the level of political leadership, covering all departmental briefs, required by any of the main political parties, nor comprehensive enough plans to meet our climate goals ahead of the general election.”

Green Alliance has called for all political parties to acknowledge and address the “significant policy gaps preventing the UK from meeting its legal and international obligations”. Noting that nearly 20% of emissions cuts needed are covered by policy still under consultation, it called on the government to “prioritise progressing policies held up at the consultation stage by confirming them before the end of this parliament”.

The net zero reset

Net zero

September 2023 marked a significant shift in tone from the Conservative government on net zero when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a “more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic” approach.

During a Downing Street press conference, the PM set out that the government would still meet net zero while easing “the burdens on working people”. He rolled back on green plans including pushing back the ban on sales of new cars with combustion engines from 2030 to 2035.

Included in Sunak’s speech was the scrapping of “a government diktat to sort your rubbish into seven different bins”. A specified number of recycling containers was never policy, but the consistent collections policy, which government had consulted on, had become negatively characterised as “seven bins” by some national media. The policy was later rebranded Simpler Recycling.

As Rosa Hodgkin, a researcher at the Institute for Government, noted at the time, Sunak muddied the waters “by “scrapping policies that did not exist” and undermined his “asserted long-term commitment to net zero by using it as a political football”.

Leo Mercer, policy analyst at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, told Circular Online: “Once you dug a little deeper under those policy announcements, it became clear that it was quite an adept bit of politicking, in that [Sunak] signalled loud and clear a change to green policy, largely to satisfy the right-wing of the Conservative party and those who are fervently against net zero.

“But underpinning some of those policies, such as the internal combustion engine vehicle phase-out date, the actual targets on car manufacturers to produce an ever-increasing share of vehicle sales from electric vehicles as opposed to internal combustion engine vehicles remained unchanged. 

“So, it typifies the Conservative approach to climate, at the moment, which is quite confused, sending a lot of mixed signals, causing those in business and finance to be quite jittery and uncertain about the direction of travel the UK is going in. There is lots of signalling and posturing but at the same time quietly getting underway with the net zero agenda and trying to fulfil some of those targets as well.”

Slow progress and lack of delivery

Election 2024

For waste and resources policy, the report “Profit without loss: how conserving resources benefits the economy, businesses and consumers” published by Green Alliance in November, neatly sums up the current state of play: “The UK government has committed to improving resource efficiency and tackling waste, including in its 2018 resources and waste strategy.

“But, five years since this was published, none of the policies it promised have been delivered, and progress towards any implementation has been painfully slow. While initial recycling commitments continue to be postponed, more transformative policies that stimulate action higher up the waste hierarchy, i.e. to keep materials from ending up as waste in the first place through reuse and repair, have not had any attention at all.”

One reason identified for slow progress towards a circular economy is “concern, particularly within economic circles, about what impact it will have on the economy as a whole”.

Its assessment is that there would be positive impacts at all levels – with policy support – and it has called on government to: improve access to data on material flows and circular activities; use the tax system strategically and consider material taxes; and set a target for reduced resource use in the region of halving the material footprint per person in England by 2050.

Labour’s green U-turn

Net zero

With the Conservative party on attack mode in the election countdown, Labour rowed back on its £28bn a year green investment pledge, which it made in 2021 and replaced the policy with a more modest £4.8bn a year in new spending. As Mercer explains: “Labour really didn’t help themselves by putting a figure on funding the Green Prosperity Plan.

“As the fiscal situation deteriorated it became ever more difficult to see how they were going to be able to fund their prosperity plan while remaining within their self-imposed fiscal rules of ensuring that debt lowers relative to GDP over five years. So, they really created a rod for their own back with the magnitude of that pledge and having a very clear number for the Tories and the right-wing to really flog them repeatedly until it was untenable to hold on to.”

The main casualty was the home insulation plan, but the National Wealth fund, to invest in green innovations, and the creation of Great British Energy, the state-owned clean energy company, remain. “So, it will be interesting to see how these will come to fruition should Labour win the election,” Mercer says.

At the time of writing, Labour continues to be around 20 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls. Recent by-election results have seen the Conservative party lose majorities, but as Jim Pickard, deputy political editor at the Financial Times (FT) explained in the first Green Alliance election webinar, these shouldn’t be seen as an indicator of what will happen at a general election “when there is much higher turnout, and the stakes are very different”. 

Just remember that in 2019 Labour was 10 points ahead at the start of that year and of course circumstances.

Much was made in the national press of the “electoral backlash” to the ULEZ expansion in the Uxbridge by-election last summer, won by the Conservatives. Analysis by Dr Zain Mohyuddin, a researcher at UK in a Changing Europe, has shown that while levels of support for measures to combat climate change remain high in the UK, backing falls when policies impose additional costs.

Also, university-educated voters are more likely to support additional environmental policies than working-class supporters of the same parties.

Pickard predicts that the local elections in May will result in “terrible” headlines for the Conservative party, when many may write the party off, but he is wary of making a call on the election result: “Just remember that in 2019 Labour was 10 points ahead at the start of that year and of course circumstances changed because [the Conservative party] got rid of Theresa May [as Prime Minister] and they brought in Boris Johnson – and then Labour suffered its worst loss in nearly 100 years. Think about the run-up to 2010, 18 months before the 2010 election the Tories were ahead by 20 points, but we still got a hung parliament.”

He sees the election as a two-horse race between the Conservative party and Labour but adds that “small parties have a big part to play in it. If the SNP give up 20 seats to Labour in Scotland, that is very significant”.

Speaking in February’s Green Alliance webinar, Lizzy Buchan, deputy political editor at the Daily Mirror, agreed that the smaller parties “definitely have a role to play”. She added: “You can see that Reform is playing heavily on the minds of Conservatives, particularly the right-wing of the party.”

Does the public support greener policies?


Buchan said this election will be “looked at through the prism of cost of living” but questioned whether Westminster “sometimes under-prices the support that the public has for climate-friendly policies”.

Indeed, analysis by John Burn-Murdoch, chief data reporter at the FT has found that Britons are more supportive of green policies than people in peer countries such as Germany, France, and the US. He found that Britons are in favour of a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 – and that support for this policy is higher among British Conservatives than the centre-left in France and Germany.

For Steve Hynd, media and policy manager at City to Sea, which campaigns against plastic pollution, “there is still huge public demand for environmental action – and that’s not to be underestimated”.

He tells Circular: “All our surveys and research show that people want to make environmental choices but increasingly they feel like they aren’t accessible to them.” On reusable packaging, for example, affordability and accessibility are key to change.

Hynd has seen first-hand how popular opinion and political pressure can make things happen. City to Sea worked with 38 Degrees to mobilise supporters to respond to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) consultation on a ban on certain single-use plastics which resulted in 51,462 responses from its supporters, dwarfing the 1,867 from other interested parties. The single-use plastic ban came into effect last October.

“It came about when it did because there was political pressure to do it and because they knew it was popular with the public. I think through public pressure you can put things at the top of Government’s ‘to do’ pile, which is why we have produced a simple Reuse manifesto which are our five headline asks going into a general election.”

He “definitely” thinks now is the time to push its agenda. “I still feel that plastics are the gateway to environmentalism for a lot of ordinary people – it is something tangible.” Hynd says both the Conservative and Labour parties are supportive of the global plastics treaty, but this is an example of where the government wants to be seen as leading on the international stage when it hasn’t yet sorted out its domestic affairs.

The post-election outlook

Election 2024

So, how could green issues look post-election? Mercer says: “If the Tories were to win the election, I think you will see more of this ‘quietly, quietly’ approach where they will continue to act upon the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee.

“Should the Labour Party win, they are obviously a lot more supportive of green policy and action on climate change. Rachel Reeves said in her Mais lecture series that they would borrow to invest. So, there is a lot more emphasis on investment in the green economy.”

Whoever wins, there are many challenges ahead. Sunak’s net zero speech mentioned that honest public discussion was needed “about the tough choices and sacrifices involved” with achieving net zero – a conversation that no one seems brave enough to have.

Hynd questions when the UK will live up to its self-appointed title of being a “world leader” in environmental issues but strikes an optimistic note for the future: “It is within our grasp, we can do. We have the political solutions – all we need now is the political will to make it happen.”

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