Eamonn Ives is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.
Perhaps it’s fitting that in the year which saw the launch of the Gregg’s vegan sausage roll, and weeks of protests from Extinction Rebellion, we were also ‘treated’ to a general election debate centred solely on the issue of climate change. Over the course of fifty minutes or so, leaders of some of the country’s main political parties traded blows over their respective visions for the environment.
I say some because absent from the debate was the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Reasons as to why could be numerous.
When YouGov’s hallowed ‘MRP’ puts you on course for a 68-seat majority, there is a certain logic in keeping a low profile and carefully seeing the game out, so to speak. Plenty of folk who are right of centre take a dim view of Channel Four’s fleeting commitment to impartiality. And then there’s the argument about not wanting to give tacit credence to rather gimmicky concepts like single-issue debates in what is, after all, a general election.
Nonetheless, one might be puzzled at the Prime Minister’s decision to give it a miss. The environment has been a surprisingly strong wicket for the Conservative Party in recent years. On their watch, the UK has signed itself up to a legally binding target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while renewable energy sources now provide a third of the nation’s electricity, thanks in part to policies they brought in.
Moreover, in their manifesto – slender as it may be – the Conservatives still manage to cram in plenty of references to the climate. They speak proudly of the hundreds of millions of pounds worth of planned investment in low-carbon infrastructure, and the moratorium they’d place on the deeply unpopular practice of fracking.
Yet, the decision not to field their man had been made, and so Johnson ultimately found himself represented in the form of a slowly melting block of carved ice. But what did those who were in attendance have to say, and how did their arguments stack up?
The debate began with remarks from each leader. And, with grim predictability, viewers quickly learnt that this was going to be far from a sensible debate on just climate change.
The socialist Jeremy Corbyn left no time at all in utilising the debate as an excuse to bash private corporations – informing us that just 100 companies are responsible for 70 per cent of emissions (while failing to mention that three of the top five biggest polluters since 1965 are state-owned entities of the sort he seems to think of so fondly).
The remainer Jo Swinson inevitably used her platform to castigate Brexit as a “climate crime”. She argued that keeping the United Kingdom’s seat at the European Union table would strengthen the country’s hand in influencing change at an international level, citing the example of how governments came together to successfully reduce the damage being done to the ozone layer in the late-20th Century.
Meanwhile, pro-independence supporting Nicola Sturgeon and Adam Price, respectively of the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru, had Westminster fixed firmly in their crosshairs. But for the trappings of Whitehall, their nations would be well on the way to net zero already, seemed to be the general idea here.
To be fair to Siân Berry of the Green Party, whose central mission has of course always been inherently environmental in theme, she was at least able to be honest about the Greens’ intention to rip up our existing system and place climate change at the heart of a Green government.
Perhaps I’m being uncharitable. No doubt if the Conservatives did take part in the debate, Johnson would have been unstinting in reminding us that if we do indeed ‘Get Brexit Done’, the United Kingdom could finally press on with things like implementing the new vision for agricultural policy drawn up by Michael Gove during his two-year stint as Environment Secretary.
Even so, on more than one occasion, it felt very much like climate change was playing second fiddle to some more overarching intentions which the candidates were keen to trot out. Still, environmental policy remains one of those areas which many parties as a whole are struggling to get to grips with, so instead feel more comfortable framing it in a way which suits their own agendas. Meagre examples of what each leader came up with when quizzed on what they will do personally to tackle climate change – like using reusable coffee cups, or planting lavender in a window box – are testimony to this.
Who knows whether the Conservatives will rue not participating yesterday evening? I suspect they won’t. In the end, it was just like any other televised debate – plenty of squabbling, meaningless soundbites, much rather much more heat than light.
That said, as someone who firmly believes that capitalism and the climate can be mutually inclusive concepts, it would have been nice to see that perspective represented. Technological solutions to climate change were dismissed at times as fanciful (even as candidates sung the praises of technologies like electric vehicles, wind turbines, and heat pumps). Yet from some quarters, viewers were told the only way of averting disaster is to junk the entire socio-economic framework which we are so fortunate have today.
Other leadership debates in this general election campaign have attracted peak audiences of several millions. Continuing to allow them to be dominated by the voices and policies of the left on this issue in particular could be a catastrophe, leaving us less equipped to meet our climate targets, and ensure a sustainable future can be enjoyed by all