What to look out for in the Channel 4 Climate Debate

Tonight (28 November), the leaders of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Green Party will go head-to-head in Channel 4’s Climate Debate. With Conservative leader Boris Johnson refusing to participate, Green Peer Jenny Jones considers how the debate will play out.

An image of Extinction Rebellion protestors in London
An image of Extinction Rebellion protestors in London

Image: Extinction Rebellion / John Cobb

Jenny Jones

The Climate Emergency is a key issue at this election and it’s obvious why Boris Johnson doesn’t want to debate it. While there are undoubted problems with the environmental policies of the Labour Party, SNP and Lib Dems, they have all shifted dramatically greenwards in the last few years. Along with the Green Party itself, these parties can have a sensible debate with voters about saving the planet – the Conservatives can’t. For me, this is the big divide of this election.

Boris offers a far-off vision of belated changes and vague intentions. Voters want action well before the government’s feeble 2050 target for zero emissions. Thanks to Extinction Rebellion campaigning, the timetable for action has become more immediate and the scale of the solutions has jumped from millions of pounds spread over a decade to billions of pounds in the next Parliament. Meanwhile, the Conservatives still hold to the implausible belief that the free market will provide solutions, despite clear evidence that profit-focused corporations have known the consequences of their actions for the last few decades, but have gone ahead with wrecking the planet anyway.

So, has the debate finally gone beyond the usual greenwashed rhetoric about electric vehicles, carbon capture and other technological fixes?

The Lib Dems aim to spend £100 billion over five years to tackle climate change and make a good start towards their 2045 target for zero emissions. I know that Jo Swinson took money from fracking companies and Lib Dem councils support building waste incinerators, but they are against the expansion of Heathrow (the single most polluting project in the UK), unlike the 119 Labour MPs who voted for it last year.

Labour’s Green New Deal leverages £200 billion of investment in energy efficiency and household renewables with consumer loans on energy bills. It creates new jobs, apprentices and warmer homes. At best, we reach zero emissions by 2040, which is when Labour’s manifesto says that agriculture becomes fully eco, but with Heathrow, HS2 and road-building still being supported, I don’t see a Labour government reaching zero emissions for many years.

The Greens promise a £100 billion a year and a different level. It is a serious sum of money, even in a period of historically low-interest rates, but it is the kind of investment needed to transform all sectors of the economy.

Whether a party’s policies transform all aspects of our economy and our lives is one of the main questions that audience members should ask themselves when listening to Thursday’s debate.

Take transport, the one sector where carbon emissions have grown in recent years and now account for around a third of UK total emissions. Zero emissions by 2030, or 2045, will only be possible by reducing the total number of vehicles on the road, yet there is no plan to do this at a national level put forward by any of the mainstream parties.

To understand the real scale of the changes needed, let’s take the Labour Party’s pledge of an electric vehicle revolution. The pre-election pledge (not included in the manifesto) to invest £3.6 billion to expand the electric charging network and help deliver over 21 million electric cars by 2030 is both wonderfully ambitious and completely inadequate. Even if all that electricity comes from renewable sources (otherwise the pollution is just produced elsewhere), that still leaves over sixteen million vehicles, including lorries and vans, running on diesel or petrol. It also means ignoring the huge carbon cost of making those electric vehicles.

Labour do have a positive promise to restore some 3,000 bus routes that have been cut in the last decade or two. This is great, but as I learned from my years as Mayor Ken Livingstone’s Green Transport Advisor, you need stick as well as carrot. Traffic has been steadily growing since the government stopped the annual increase in the Fuel Duty Escalator that Labour established back in the 1990s. We need to lower the cost of rail and bus by raising the money from car drivers. It is one of those hard choices that mainstream politicians run away from, even when all the academics are telling them it's needed to cut pollution and save the planet.

Alongside raising the cost of using a combustion engine, we need a universal system of electric vehicle hire. We promote the switch to electric but have a rule that charging points can only use renewable energy – otherwise the benefits are hardly worth the cost. Above all, we massively improve public transport, walking and cycling facilities.

The golden rule when examining the different solutions to climate change put forward in this election is to ask whether this impacts on my lifestyle? Does it reduce some of the damaging things we all do, like the five pence tax on plastic bags did and a tax on disposable coffee cups would do? Ask whether a party’s manifesto will change the way you shop, eat, move around, or spend your leisure time? If not, then don’t fool yourself that the lack of change is a good thing, because business-as-usual is going to cause more damaging floods and more baking summers with reduced crop yields. The Arctic ice will continue to melt and people are going to die all over the world from climate disasters. If we don’t change our lifestyle, then eventually the planet will force us to do it anyway. But by then it could be far too late.