Climate discourse has heated up in every sense this summer. In July, the hottest month on record globally, the evacuation of thousands of British holidaymakers from fires on the Greek island of Rhodes almost paled to insignificance beside extreme weather events in Canada’s Northwest Territories, Southern California and Maui. Debates around green policy grabbed headlines in the UK – but without much reference to these record-breaking figures and the speed at which global warming is taking hold. Instead, we saw how environmental policies can fall victim to short-term political tactics, illustrated by responses to London’s expanding Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).
The Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election was a flashpoint in July, enflaming a long dispute about who should bear the cost of enforcing green measures. Leading up to the vote, the Conservatives ran their campaign in opposition to the ULEZ expansion. Boris Johnson first announced the scheme when he was Mayor of London. It has since been successfully implemented in central boroughs by his Labour successor, Sadiq Kahn, and was expanded to outer London on the 29th of August. The initiative only affects a very small proportion of motorists, specifically owners of vehicles breaking the designated pollution threshold (primarily diesel engines). The London scrappage scheme, which the government has refused to support, currently fails to provide adequate compensation for some.
In the run up to the Uxbridge by-election, the Conservative strategy was to whip up discontent against Khan’s plans, and thereby against Labour, branding Steve Tuckwell, their new MP, as “anti-ULEZ”. There is also some evidence that sophisticated online misinformation campaigns were in place to stoke hostility towards the ULEZ extension and to Sadiq Khan.
Danny Beales, the Labour candidate, actually criticised Khan’s proposals, playing right into the Conservative’s climate change culture war handbook. Following Labour’s loss, ULEZ was held responsible, with the party leadership blaming the scheme rather than their own lacklustre campaign.
Rishi Sunak has since been trying to capitalise on this victory. Framing the party as on the side of “motorists”, the Conservatives now appear willing to jeopardise wider green strategies, in order to galvanise voter support. There are signs that other initiatives may be in danger, such as the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and phasing out gas boilers by 2035.
Sunak announced a major expansion of North Sea oil and gas drilling at the end of July. The approval of these new licences, over 100 of them, is allegedly to minimise reliance on international oil and gas suppliers and deliver national energy security. Yet oil and gas in British waters is extracted by multinational corporations and will flow to international markets. There’s no evidence to suggest extending these operations will provide energy more affordably or securely in the UK. These new drilling licences are entirely at odds with our climate commitments and will enhance the risk of environmental catastrophe. New efforts to create capacity for carbon capture and storage (CCS) is being dangerously used to justify ongoing oil and gas dependence, when there is clear consensus on the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, switch to renewables and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Labour has offered no promising alternative. U-turning on its commitment to spend £28bn annually on green projects has set a new direction of travel. By refusing to adopt forms of wealth taxation and adopting rigid fiscal rules, it has shut the door on necessary investment in the near future. Instead, Labour’s plan is to increase public investment only after a period of growth. However, addressing the climate crisis and moving towards a healthier economy is contingent on immediate investment, funded through tax reform or borrowing.
Keir Starmer’s party continually frames issues in the Conservative’s terms, as seen before and after the Uxbridge by-election. At the recent National Policy Forum it dropped its strategy to work towards low emission zones across the country. Starmer also abstained from revoking the new North Sea licences, despite acknowledging that Sunak’s plan is “bogus” and will “accelerate the climate crisis”.
Agenda-setting politicians are operating against the beliefs and needs of people up and down the country. Recent national polls indicate that the public don’t trust either major party to deal with climate change, despite widespread support for green policies nationwide (unless they come at a personal cost). Conservative voters in the UK are also typically as pro-environmental as the centre-left in comparable countries, including Germany, France and the US. Considering the media hysteria surrounding ULEZ and the Parliamentary Labour Party’s line, you would think outer London residents strongly disapprove of the expansion. In fact, opposition to the scheme does not outweigh support. ULEZ was a key contributor to the Conservative’s 495-vote lead in Uxbridge, although such a slim margin highlights Labour’s missed opportunity to put forward a compelling story and call for the government to compensate those affected. The Conservatives have been able to control the narrative, sabotaging a life-saving policy and ignoring requests to deliver an improved scrappage scheme.
While green policies generally have long-term health and social benefits, in the short term they can be burdensome, especially for those on low-incomes. Clearly, sufficient support schemes are required alongside environmental initiatives, to make sure certain groups are not penalised. But neither Labour nor the Conservatives are pushing for measures of this kind.
Sitting on the fence when it comes to green policy is fatal, environmentally and electorally. Power lies with politicians to accelerate decarbonisation and determine who should bear the costs. It is often forgotten that the UK once pioneered environmental policies, employing climate mitigating measures faster than many peer countries through the 2010s, albeit only until 2017. Beyond Westminster, we must develop a wider narrative to influence policy in the face of interlinked climate and economic crises. This must unite the environmental movement with the day-to-day concerns of working people (and “motorists”), driving home that we can’t afford not to invest in decarbonising our economy. The systemic approach of the Social Guarantee appreciates that a truly “just transition” can only be achieved while meeting people’s needs.