POLITICS:

Amid a fog of green rhetoric, U.K. climate issues sail into 'uncharted waters' election

LONDON -- Combating climate change and switching to a low-carbon economy feature in the platforms of the three main U.K. political parties for the general election set for May 6. While all three promise a raise in green investments, there are major differences in content, ambition and detail.

The Labour Party, in power for the past 13 years, and the main opposition Conservative Party, which had ruled for the previous 18 years, both pledge to create a Green Investment Bank but without saying how, when or by how much it would be funded.

The far smaller Liberal Democrats promise a U.K. Infrastructure Bank using unspecified government seed money to leverage private finance for rail services, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

But from there on, the three parties diverge, and the differences could be sharpened by the prospect of the nation's first coalition government in more than three decades.

"Labour and the Conservatives are very much into efficiencies, otherwise known as cuts, particularly in government. That is not good at a time when you need a lot of central direction in dealing with the climate change challenge," said Tom Burke of environmental think tank E3G. "The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, see the need for strong and skilled government, which is essential for dealing with the problems facing us."

"The difference between Labour and the Conservatives is that the Conservatives are very strongly into deregulation, and that is very bad news when it comes to the environment," he added.

But the latest opinion polls show that no one party has the strength to win an overall majority in the House of Commons, meaning the likely formation of the country's first coalition government since 1978. Thus it is far from clear how much of the written rhetoric will prove to be just hot air.

'Climategate' muddies public opinion

"It is one thing to put it into the manifestos [platforms], but another thing what you actually do with it," Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University in central England, told ClimateWire. "A small minority of the British public are seriously concerned about climate change. Most of the rest have simply become confused about it because of the selective leaks of the e-mails stolen from the University of East Anglia."

"But the environment never has -- except in very local issues like waste disposal -- featured in any election here, and that is not about to change," he added, noting that, with the exception of the 2008 Climate Change Act, many of the main motivating forces were actually coming from international sources such as European Union and the Kyoto Protocol.

Although the university's small climate change unit has been exonerated in the so-called "Climategate" affair resulting from the publication of the leaked e-mails and leading scientists say the underlying science remains intact, public opinion has veered sharply toward the climate change skeptic view.

This fact -- allied with the gaping hole of about £170 billion in government finances following the banking crisis and the recession, which the United Kingdom is only tentatively pulling out of -- makes radical and costly action on the climate far from certain in the near future.

In its platform, Labour points to its groundbreaking Climate Change Act, which sets a target of cutting national carbon dioxide emissions by 34 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

It promises 400,000 new green jobs by 2015 and to ban recyclable and biodegradable materials from landfill, and it points to planning reforms in place to facilitate new energy infrastructure. The party vows that the country will get 40 percent of its electricity from low-carbon sources -- including wind and new nuclear -- within a decade.

It also wants a controversial new third runway at London's congested Heathrow Airport -- something both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats reject on environmental grounds.

On the international stage, it promises to push the European Union to raise its carbon emission cut target to 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 from the current 20 percent, to raise additional sums for developing nations to combat and cope with climate change and to work to extend Kyoto as long as it covers all countries.

Conservatives promise a 'Green Deal'

Resurrecting its "vote blue [the party color], go green" slogan, the Conservative platform promises to reform the country's Climate Change Levy so as to guarantee a floor price for carbon to give investors confidence, and to raise the proportion of tax revenues coming from environmental taxes, with the proviso of no overall change in the tax burden.

It pledges a smart electricity grid both on and offshore, emissions standards at power stations, support -- but not money -- for new nuclear power, progress on carbon capture and storage, incentives for small-scale energy generation and financial help for households to improve energy efficiency and cut emissions under what it terms a "Green Deal."

It, too, promises to work toward a new global climate deal -- without specifying Kyoto -- and to make available large but unspecified sums of money for adaptation and mitigation.

But while climate action is limited to one or two sections in the Labour and Conservative platforms, it is a theme that runs throughout the Liberal Democrats' document with promises of more taxes on aviation, taxing planes rather than passengers, and money for double-paned windows, for schools to be more energy-efficient, and to scrap old buses and buy new ones.

It promises changed energy tariffs to promote energy efficiency; lower rail fares; a 10-year program of home insulation; that the country will get all of its electricity from clean sources by 2050, starting with 40 percent by 2020; and creation of a smart grid. The platform says it will ban conventional coal-fired power plants and reject a new nuclear power plant fleet.

Internationally, it, too, vows to push the European Union to the 30 percent target, reform the bloc's emissions trading scheme with far more auctioning of allowances, push for international low-carbon technology transfer, and promote a legally binding global deal limiting the average temperature rise to 1.7 degrees Celsius instead of the nonbinding 2 degrees in the Copenhagen Accord.

Moving even further ahead than their rivals, the Liberal Democrats also promise an immediate strategic defense review taking in the likely security implications of climate change. Of the three parties, the Liberal Democrats received the only unqualified approval from environmental groups.

A splinter party could skew the agenda

"The Liberal Democrats have set out the most progressive environmental policies of all the major parties, and they now have a real chance to make them count," said Greenpeace director John Sauven. As a partner in a coalition government, he said, the party could rule out debates on issues like Heathrow and coal power and focus instead on developing the clean technologies that will define the 21st century.

"It's absolutely vital that the Liberal Democrats use their influence to protect government investment in clean technology projects, which will help attract billions in private investment, create thousands of green jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy."

But for Burke of think tank E3G, what will happen in the election is an unknown, given the movement in the opinion polls, which give the Conservatives a lead but not an absolute majority. The significant minority votes going to smaller parties mean the outcome of the negotiations after all the results are in on May 7 is impossible to predict.

"We are in completely uncharted waters here with what happens in the elections, let alone afterwards," he said. "The only thing that is sure is that electoral reform [to better reflect how the percentage of the vote each party gets in general elections is translated into seats in the legislature] will be top priority for the Liberal Democrats in any negotiations. Everything else is tradable."