How circular are the UK’s political parties?



Philip Mossop, COO at climate-tech firm Pentatonic, peels away the political rhetoric to examine whether the main parties’ policies are enough to meet the challenges of the moment.

UK voters will reshape the local political landscape next month through the local elections before deciding on the national picture later this year. Both the local and national elections provide the chance to frame the country’s ongoing environmental ambition for the next half-decade. 

Although the UK enshrined its 2050 net zero target in 2019, the rate of progression towards this goal has been roundly criticised. Accelerating the pace of change requires a shift in collective focus.

Delivering on decarbonisation means moving from traditional, linear means of production to a vibrant, circular economy. This isn’t just about swapping petrol for electricity or coal for wind; it’s about transforming the entire consumption playbook and moving from take-make-waste to reuse-recycle-renew.

The Labour and Conservative parties are the political heavyweights at the heart of this transformation. Each pitches a vision of a green and sustainable UK, but are their promises robust enough to drive the change we need?

Incumbent and challenger: How circular are their policies?


The Conservatives rely on market power, betting on innovation and the private sector to lead the charge towards sustainability. Incentive-led policies are used to stimulate investment and innovation, while at the other end, regulation targets some of the worst sustainability offenders.

After making the original commitment to reaching net zero by 2050, five years ago, the party has invested in offshore wind in efforts to make the UK a global leader. However, specific GW targets in recent statements are not forthcoming.

Proposed home energy efficiency improvements have in some cases been dialled back on (citing cost concerns for families), and a delay was recently announced on the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars, from 2030 to 2035.

Rishi Sunak
Circular Online has previously explored Rishi Sunak’s green credentials.

In terms of circular policies, the government launched the Plastic Packaging Tax in April 2022 as part of the Resources and Waste strategy and introduced a ban on certain single-use plastics in October 2023; in support of its goal of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

The party is proposing a levy to enhance recyclable packaging and will implement extended producer responsibility (EPR). It also wants to ban plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries.

Labour is dreaming big with its green industrial revolution, promising a zero-waste society powered by renewable energy and ambitious recycling targets. Despite this, the roadmap to realisation still needs to be more explicit.

The opposition has proposed “Great British Energy”, a public entity to drive the UK towards energy independence with a significant focus on renewable sources; and has pledged to retrofit homes for energy efficiency, to the tune of one million annual home upgrades. It also targets 60% of the UK’s electricity to come from wind, solar, and nuclear by 2030.

However, the party was widely criticised for withdrawing its £28 billion annual net zero investment pledge, citing rising interest rates and economic issues. From the circularity perspective, its manifesto emphasises a commitment to addressing plastic pollution and waste.

It includes measures for EPR and the introduction of bottle-return schemes. Additionally, there’s a focus on investing in recyclable materials and reducing the UK’s contribution to ocean pollution.

SNP and the Liberal Democrats

Scottish parliament

The SNP’s decarbonisation plans have covered transport (phasing out new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030; domestic flights decarbonised within Scotland by 2040; plus active travel infrastructure investment), and energy (decarbonised heating for 1 million homes by 2030; plans to generate 50% of Scotland’s energy from renewables by 2030).

As part of the Scottish government, the SNP is making circularity strides through its Circular Economy Bill and the development of its Circular Economy and Waste Route Map to 2030. However, the Scottish government was criticised by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) for a lack of “credibility” when it comes to emissions targets.

The Liberal Democrats advocate for a blend of regulatory action around market incentives and investment related to greening and optimising energy systems. It would provide free retrofits for low-income homes and generous tax incentives for other households to reduce energy consumption, emissions, fuel bills, and gas reliance. It also plans a “Net Zero Delivery Authority” to strengthen powers for local authorities to cut emissions and promote renewables.

The party aims to reach net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2045, targeting 80% of the UK’s electricity to be generated from renewables by 2030. It has also said it would plant at least 60 million trees annually.

…and the Greens?

Net zero

Although the party only holds a single Commons seat, it’s worth noting how its more radical policies compare to those of the top four. Front and centre it calls for an aggressive carbon tax of £100 per tonne, rising to £500 by 2030, and aims to develop renewables to provide at least 100 GW by 2030.

The Greens also propose a transport revolution; including cancelling carbon-intensive road-building programs and taking all fossil fuel cars and vans off the road by 2030. It seeks to reduce air miles by 70% by 2030, stopping all airport expansions and introducing frequent flyer levies.

The party plans to promote circularity by establishing a “Natural Resources Department”, introducing Resource Taxation to encourage the use of recycled materials, and enacting a Waste Avoidance and Recycling Act to minimise disposable products and boost recycling. It would also fund further recycling technology and renewable resource research.

Missing a material opportunity

Circular economy

Circularity is a key component to delivering on decarbonisation. Therefore it will be essential that any party in power devotes greater attention to improving material lifecycle management to unlock and accelerate progress significantly. For example, by mandating product eco-design measures, supporting the implementation of circular consumption systems, and driving end-of-life management in line with the waste hierarchy.

Granted, it requires a deeper – sometimes molecular-level – understanding of the materials used in consumer products and packaging, as well as across every industry; but the impact of this approach is worth the effort. It’s the focus, at Pentatonic, of our consultancy and proprietary digital tools; all of which are guided by the fundamental understanding that materials hold the key to impact climate change at scale.

Circularity is a key component to delivering on decarbonisation.

Policies to promote circular materials and products could come in many forms – from virgin material taxation, and grant funding for research and development; to product eco-design requirements (e.g. product longevity, repairability, compostability) and waste management legislation (like EPR).

Such regulation should be pragmatic from an implementation perspective, and cognisant of current and future materials availability, to support a roadmap towards scaling a more sustainable, supply-chain-friendly approach.

Finally: The technological component


This is also to say nothing of the transformative impact of technology and AI in the coming years. The transition to a green economy is as much about technological and financial shifts as it is about cultural and behavioural change.

AI will revolutionise material science and optimise resource and material development, product and packaging design and manufacture; as well as improve monitoring, recycling, and end-of-life processes. AI is already creating efficient supply chains that minimise waste and environmental impact through smart material management and selection.

Forward-thinking policies and standards creation can help industry access and harness this technology to boost circular processes and product development. For example, incentivizing AI for sustainable design and research, funding for AI technologies (recycling technologies, material lifecycle management platforms), supporting related education and job investment, and encouraging public-private partnerships.

Communicating clearly to voters how material choices impact decarbonisation, and describing its wider contribution to net zero progress, enables parties to show how lofty climate goals can be achieved. This requires political leadership capable of seeing beyond the next election (and ideally the one beyond that as well) and courageous enough to communicate that economic stability cannot be decoupled from sustainability.

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