The prime minister won’t be at tonight’s Channel 4 climate change debate, but that shouldn’t get him off the hook. Here are the key questions we should be asking Boris Johnson.
Forget the Brexit election, this should really be the climate crisis election. For the first time ever on live TV, the leaders of the UK’s main political parties are going head-to-head to debate their climate change policies. But one participant will be conspicuously absent from the debate tonight on Channel 4 at 19:00: Boris Johnson, who, along with Nigel Farage, will be represented by an ice sculpture.
Although the prime minister won’t be there to outline his plans for tackling the climate crisis, the Conservative party manifesto gives some clues to Boris Johnson’s approach should his party form a government. The Tories devote just a single page of their 59-page manifesto to their plan to save the planet from an ongoing environmental catastrophe. This compares with Labour’s 16 pages, 11 pages from the Lib Dems, four from the SNP, six from Plaid Cymru and 22 from the Greens.
While the Conservative party isn’t offering itself up for any more scrutiny, we still have a bunch of questions for the party about its record on climate change so far, and its plans for the future. Here are the six questions that Channel 4 should be asking of the absent Boris Johnson.
What is the UK going to do about aviation emissions?
British people love to fly. In 2018, Britons made up 8.6 per cent of all international air passengers – more than any other nationality. But all of these flights have a huge toll on the environment. The UK aviation industry makes up four per cent of all global aviation carbon dioxide emissions and those are projected to grow by 5.7 per cent a year, meaning that overall aviation emissions will triple by 2050 if things continue at the current rate.
But decarbonising aviation won’t happen by itself. The Green party is pushing for a frequent flier levy on people who take more than one return flight a year. The Lib Dems say they will resist adding any new runways to the UK’s airports while the SNP is opting to improve rail links between Edinburgh and London to discourage people from taking domestic flights.
The Conservative party is going for a more technology-first approach, pushing for new innovations to make airline landings more efficient and pinning its hopes on electric and low-carbon flight. But there are no electric planes on the horizon that could replace the most widely-used aircraft. And any government that really wants to tackle aviation emissions will have to do the unpopular work of reducing demand. Johnson can’t innovate his way out of this one.
How will we solve the UK’s heating conundrum?
The UK’s heating system is an environmental disaster. Around 85 per cent of homes are still heated by natural gas, while under the Conservative government installation of green boilers and energy-saving insulation have plummeted. In the last three months of 2018, only 6,461 homes had new insulation installed – a reduction of 98 per cent from the same period in 2010.
This is a major issue. The Committee on Climate Change – an independent body that advises the UK government on tackling climate change – has proposed that by 2025 no new homes should be connected to the gas grid. And that doesn’t include the 80 per cent of homes that currently exist and will still be in use by 2050. To meet a target of an 80 per cent reduction in emissions, any government would have to switch more than 20,000 homes a week to low-carbon heating between 2025 and 2050.
To get people switching to greener heating, the SNP is proposing favourable tax incentives while the Lib Dems want all new homes to be built to a zero-carbon standard and to offer low-income homes free insulation. The Conservative manifesto, on the other hand, makes no mention of heating or insulation, while Labour promises to upgrade every UK home to the highest energy-efficiency standards and introduce a zero-carbon standard for new homes.
Will the Conservatives bring back fracking?
In early November, the government called a halt on fracking after multiple earthquakes interrupted shale gas extraction at a Lancashire fracking site run by Cuadrilla Resources. But the government stopped short of a total ban on fracking, saying that work in the area had been paused “unless and until further evidence is provided that [fracking] can be carried out safely here.”
Labour, the Greens and Lib Dems all go much further than this, advocating for an outright ban on fracking. The SNP says it will not issue any new fracking licences in Scotland – stopping slightly short of an outright ban. Of all the major parties, only the Conservatives have explicitly left the door open to allowing fracking, raising the possibility that the current moratorium was just a clever bit of pre-election manoeuvring.
Where is all the electric car infrastructure?
The UK is lagging behind other countries when it comes to electric cars. In March 2019, electric cars made up nearly 60 per cent of vehicle sales in Norway thanks to generous government subsidies and investment in charging points. In the UK, that figure is closer to ten per cent.
The Greens want to create a network of electric vehicle charging points across the country, including requiring all petrol stations and motorway service stations to include charging points by 2025. Labour also wants to invest in charging infrastructure as well as funding car-sharing clubs, while the Lib Dems propose slashing VAT on electric vehicles. The Conservatives want to put £1 billion into a fast-charging network that will, the party claims, mean everyone in the UK is within 30 miles of a rapid electric vehicle charging point.
Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens all want to end the sale of combustion engine vehicles by 2030. The SNP meanwhile wants the phase-out to finish by 2032. In July 2017 the government announced a slightly less ambitious target: new diesel and petrol cars and vans will be banned in the UK from 2040. Since around a fifth of drivers hang on to their cars for more than 13 years, it’s likely that this date may undercut the government’s own plan to make the UK net carbon zero by 2050.
How many trees is enough trees?
If there is one thing that the parties running in the election have agreed on, it’s a tree-planting arms race. The SNP wants to plant 60 million trees annually by 2025 – a figure matched by the Lib Dems – while the Greens have pledged 700 million trees by 2030, which averages out at 70 million trees a year.
Aside from a commitment to plant an “NHS forest” of one million trees, Labour also claims it would plant two billion new trees in England by 2040, the most ambitious target of any of the main parties. The Conservative party meanwhile has pledged to plant 30 million trees every year by 2024, including a promise that all new streets will be lined with trees.
But tree-planting is not a climate crisis panacea. Since trees can take 50 to 100 years to mature, they won’t make an immediate dent in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and how effective those trees are at drawing carbon out of the atmosphere will depend on the type of trees and where they are planted.
And so far the Conservative government hasn’t been meeting its own tree-planting targets. Between January and March 2019, only 3,507 acres of trees were planted in England – far short of the government’s target of 12,355 acres for the same time period. According to the Committee on Climate Change, the UK will have to plant 1.5 billion new trees over the next 30 years to increase woodland cover from 13 to 17 per cent.
Can we trust the Conservatives on climate change?
The Conservative party does not have a great record when it comes to climate change action. An analysis from the Guardian and the investigative environmental journalism group DeSmog UK rated all MPs on their climate change votes between 2008 and 2019, finding that Conservative MPs were almost five times as likely to vote against climate action as legislators from other parties.
Things don’t look much brighter closer to Johnson’s cabinet either. The same analysis – which rated MPs from zero to 100 per cent – gave cabinet members a voting score of 17 per cent while the Labour shadow cabinet scored 90 per cent.
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