The upcoming election has been exceptional in the unprecedented prominence accorded to the environment: witness the climate debate held on national TV, with no-shows Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage replaced by melting ice.
Perhaps reflecting the recent rapid growth in public concern, it is also a significant topic in parties’ manifestos.
The first key issue that needs to be addressed is the implications of Brexit for environmental policy, particularly with regard to the risks of watering down policy commitments and potential gaps in implementation and enforcement.
To address these concerns the Conservatives promise to reintroduce the Environment Bill containing the planned Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).
However, the Remain-leaning opposition parties hardly mention how their plans may vary in the event of Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats promise an OEP, which will be ‘fully independent’ with sufficient ‘powers and resources to enforce compliance’.
Labour will introduce an environmental tribunal to adjudicate on environmental cases, but say nothing about the OEP or the Environment Bill.
The Greens promise to establish an Environmental Protection Commission to enforce regulations.
A key focus for all the parties is the zero-carbon economy, with ambitious targets included in each manifesto.
The Conservatives stick with their existing 2050 target set by Theresa May in line with the recommendation of the independent Climate Change Committee.
However, the opposition parties have embraced the scientific message that most emissions reductions need to take place as soon as possible.
The Liberal Democrats go for 2045 but with the bulk achieved in the next decade; Labour promise the ‘substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030’; the SNP has 2040; while the Greens trump them all with an ambitious, but perhaps unrealistic, 2030 target.
Despite this move by the Greens, Friends of the Earth have somewhat controversially ranked the Labour manifesto as greenest, largely thanks to a non-manifesto commitment to introduce an aviation tax for frequent flyers, bringing it into line with similar promises from the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
Notably all the parties are proposing what Labour calls a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’: a fundamental transformation of industry, energy, transport, agriculture and buildings – with many similar policy proposals backed by major investment.
Labour plans a £250 billion Green Transformation Fund, partly funded by a windfall tax on the oil industry, to create one million ‘climate jobs’ in renewable and low-carbon energy and transport, and environmental protection.
The imprint of careful backroom negotiations with the unions is ever-present, not just in the dilution of the party conference support for a 2030 net zero emissions target, but also in the commitment to a ‘just transition’ for workers in fossil fuel industries to new ‘good-quality jobs’.
With Scotland particularly vulnerable to the future dismantling of the oil and gas industries, the SNP also emphasizes a ‘just transition’ strategy.
So do the Greens, who also outdo Labour with the eye-watering promise to spend £100 billion annually on achieving zero carbon, partly funded by a carbon tax on fossil fuels.
The Liberal Democrats commit to a more financially prudent, but still significant, 5% of government spending on climate and environmental objectives within five years.
The opposition parties underpin their zero-carbon commitments with other strong 2030 targets.
The Liberal Democrats promise ‘at least 80% of UK electricity’ from renewables, Labour ‘nearly 90% of electricity and 50% of heat from renewable and low-carbon sources’, and the Greens imply almost all electricity will be from renewables (Labour and the Conservatives would build new nuclear reactors, the Greens and SNP would prohibit them, the Liberal Democrats avoid the issue).
On energy efficiency, the Liberal Democrats promise an insulation programme for all homes, Labour will upgrade ‘almost all’ of the UK’s 27 million homes to the highest energy efficiency standards, the Greens will insulate all homes that need it with ‘deep retrofitting’ of a further 10 million homes, and the SNP will encourage it through tax incentives.
Tree planting is in vogue: the Liberal Democrats and SNP promise 60 million per year, the Greens 700 million by 2030 and Labour has targeted planting an extraordinary 2 billion trees by 2040 (although this didn’t feature in the manifesto).
The Conservatives also get in on the tree-planting act – promising 75,000 acres per year – but their manifesto mostly avoids specifying targets and generally displays considerably less ambition, even though current government climate policies will fall far short of meeting their 2050 target.
Relatively modest investments are promised for carbon capture and storage projects, and improving energy efficiency in homes, schools and hospitals. There are numerous vague promises, such as to ‘work with the market’ to deliver two million new jobs in clean growth.
All parties, apart from the SNP, address another big contemporary issue: plastics pollution.
The opposition parties will ban all plastic exports, while the Conservatives will ban only exports to non-OECD countries. The Greens and Liberal Democrats emphasise the circular economy, encouraging reuse and recycling, and both will ban non-recyclable single-use plastics.
The implication of Brexit for waste policy and waste exports is curiously absent.
The transport sector, a major source of carbon emissions, is prominent in all manifestos, with common promises to invest in infrastructure for electric vehicles.
The opposition parties will bring the target date for ending the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles forward to 2030 from 2040 (Scotland already has 2032), while the Conservatives promise only to ‘consult’ on the date.
There are big plans for railways, including new lines, notably in northern England and, from the opposition parties, massive electrification programmes.
While the Greens and Liberal Democrats would stop the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, both Labour and the Conservatives would support it providing it meets various environmental criteria. Conservative plans to spend £28.8 billion on roads do, however, risk undermining their other progressive environmental measures.
On agriculture and fisheries, two sectors that will be profoundly affected by Brexit, there is again limited mention.
The Conservatives will maintain funding for both, but underpinned by the principle of public money for public goods. The Liberal Democrats will reorganize funding and similarly redirect it to environmental goods. Labour says little, but includes an ambitious aspiration for net zero carbon food production by 2040.
All the main parties commit to limiting fishing to maximum sustainable yields (MSY), although the UK is obliged to recognize that legal principle anyway. The SNP has more detailed policies on fisheries, understandable given its importance for the Scottish economy.
However, the elephant in the room for all this is that the UK’s future trade relationships will profoundly shape future standards and funding.
Overall, this is the first general election where the UK parties are genuinely competing on the environment. It remains to be seen whether they will deliver on their promises once elected, and crucially if the prominence of the environment and climate change in the manifestos is simply a one-off.
By Professor Charlotte Burns, Research Leader of Brexit & Environment research network at The UK in a Changing Europe and Professorial Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield, and Professor Neil Carter, Deputy Head of the Department of Politics, University of York).