Objective 8

Climate Change and the Environment

This section provides an overview of the Radical Party’s approach to major environmental issues and goes on to explore in detail how we should best respond to marine degradation and climate change, which are widely considered to be the greatest environmental threats to our future well-being.

Governments see defence against military threats from hostile neighbours as among their highest priorities and spend enormous sums maintaining and updating our capacity to protect ourselves from attack. But in recent decades, a new category of threat has emerged in the form of rapid and uncontrolled environmental destruction which, in the medium and long-term, poses at least as great a danger to our well-being and indeed survival, as war or terrorism. So far, the response of the British Government, and indeed of all governments, has been wholly inadequate to meet the scale of the risks involved.

Science

The Radical Party’s approach to tackling these challenges will have three main components. The first of these is addressing the need to rapidly build a better scientific understanding of the nature and extent of major threats involved. This is particularly urgent in areas such as the study of diminishing biodiversity and the destruction of the world’s coral reefs and polar icecaps, where human activity is currently destroying much of the evidence before it can even be identified. British universities and institutes have a very strong record of achievement in several of these areas and it is vital that this commitment is sustained and built upon in the coming years.

International Collaboration

The second component builds on the fact contributing to understanding such issues will require not just more and better-targetted national resources and leadership, but also increased collaboration at the European and international levels to mobilise and coordinate the commitment funding and expertise required. In view of the absolutely central role which EU initiatives play in addressing the scientific dimension of environmental challenges, the highest priority in the immediate future must be to resolve the issue of how to lock into, and sustain, collaboration with European partners, should Brexit go ahead in some form or other. International cooperation will also be essential to translate understanding of the scale and implications of harmful environmental change into international law to contain urgent threats such as climate change and the degradation of the world’s oceans.

Public Engagement

The third component of the Radical Party’s approach involves the political dimension of the environmental threat. The public and young people, in particular, are in many respects already deeply concerned about many of these issues, but they have largely been prevented from translating that concern into action at the political level by two factors. The first of these is our failed electoral system, which, for example, gave the Green Party only one MP in the last election, despite the fact that Green candidates received a total of over 525,000 votes. The second factor is that for members of the public and politicians alike to make a realistic appraisal of the nature and gravity of these threats often requires at least some degree of understanding of the underlying scientific issues, which are often distorted to sell newspapers, win political support or serve the interests of powerful lobbies such as the fossil fuel and fishing industries.

In view of this, and reflecting its fundamental commitment to empowerment as the key to resolving policy issues, the third component of the Radical Party’s approach will be to help the public to play a much larger role in prioritising and addressing environmental challenges. A major part of the problem today is that, because of the susceptibility of our political system to lobbying by vested interests, our educational system and the problem of often ill-informed and sensationalist journalism, the public are poorly equipped to make rational comparisons between different types of risk.

For example, most people are rightly acutely aware for the danger to health from ionising radiation, for which the number of known fatalities in the UK over the last 70 years is in single figures. At the same time, they largely put up with the threat from gases released through the combustion of fossil fuels, despite responsible estimates that put the number of people who have died as the result of exposure to such gases over the same period at well over 2 million. A key element of our approach, therefore, will be to work to ensure that the public, teachers and media professionals have access to the up-to-date data and well-grounded analysis they need to contribute to informed decision-taking and to campaign effectively for the Government give such issues the priority they deserve.

To this end, the Party proposes that a ministerial post be created in the Department for Education and Science with responsibility for developing a strategy for improving public understanding of scientific issues of relevance to public policy, particularly with respect to government’s responsibilities in the fields of health and the environment. Such a strategy should involve close engagement with the scientific and educational communities and should include fresh resources to support the expansion of the community of specialists dedicated to promoting public understanding of scientific issues, outreach to teachers and journalists and additional resources for schools and public libraries.

Protecting the Oceans

The issue of the impact of pollution and global warming on the world’s oceans and the destruction of fishing stocks and ecosystems such as mangrove swamps and coral reefs which are crucial for the survival of fish species of vital importance for the future of humanity. As a maritime nation with an important fishing industry, an extensive coastline and continental shelf and responsibility for islands and a part of the Antarctic Continent whose territorial waters together encompass vast areas of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, Britain is uniquely well placed to take a lead in addressing these problems.       

Climate Change

The public are deeply concerned by climate change and in the last General Election, a clear majority voted for parties calling for a reversal of the wholly inadequate response of the Conservative Government made possible by an electoral system which fails to represent majority opinion and encourages undue influence from private interests, including the fossil fuel industry.

There is an overwhelming case for Britain to take a lead in addressing global warming which, along with population growth, is probably the greatest threat facing humanity in the 21st century. Britain is particularly threatened because of the very real danger of a weakening in the North Atlantic drift resulting from the polar warming, which could lead to a catastrophic fall in temperatures throughout Northern Europe. Reducing the release of fossil fuel gases from power generation, heating and transport is also essential because of their impact on health, with authoritative estimates indicating that such emissions are responsible for at least 30,000 premature deaths per year in the UK alone.

This raises the challenge of containing the growth in the demand for energy while at the same time developing and introducing new, clean technologies on a global scale, many of which have the potential to create sustainable jobs for the future. The Government is committed by the 2008 Climate Change Act to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels. While progress in the short term is on track, it is very unlikely that the long-term objective will be achievable without a major change of approach.

The share of the UK’s energy that comes from renewable resources has increased rapidly in recent years, but evidence of the warming of the Arctic shows that the UK, along with other nations, needs to do much more if disastrous change is to be avoided. The main obstacles are: first, the high proportion of energy that is currently consumed in the form of gas for heating; second, the intermittent nature of solar and wind power and the near impossibility of building an adequate energy storage system within the necessary timescale; and, third, the physical, political and financial obstacles that stand in the way of hydro, tidal and of nuclear generation, which experience in countries such as Canada, France, and Switzerland suggests could help resolve this dilemma.

A Setback

Following the replacement of the Coalition (which had a good record on climate change) by a Conservative administration in 2015 election, the Government backtracked on a number of important climate change policies, calling in question Britain’s commitment to tackling global warming. It brought forward the phasing out of the Climate Change Levy, which supports new renewable energy projects, impeded the development of land-based wind generation (currently the most cost-effective technology), and severely reduced funding for the insulation of the most energy inefficient homes. These measures have clearly impeded plans for further investment in renewable energy and power storage technologies.

Energy Saving

The most obvious immediate way to tackle climate change emissions is through measures to promote energy saving. Most media attention is focused on the switch to renewable power generation and the move away from fossil fuels in transport (which account for 40% of end-user energy consumption). But to be effective, the policy must also encompass the domestic sector (29%), industry (17%) and services (14%).

Dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency in road and air transport have been achieved, but the opportunities for raising the efficiency of internal combustion are finite and the next big step is already underway with the move to electric propulsion as range and performance improve. Unless radically new technologies are developed, the growth in battery use is likely to run up against constraints in the availability of lithium and cobalt within a decade or two, but by that stage, there are good prospects that fuel cell technology will have evolved as an alternative power source with different requirements in terms of materials.

While transport grabs the headlines, the reality is that well over 50% of all energy consumed in the UK goes to heat and light domestic and business premises. This poses a problem; first because Britain’s elderly housing stock is inefficient by European standards; and, second, because heating is generally individualised and based on a distribution infrastructure which would be enormously expensive to replace. For example, KPMG calculated in 2016 that it would cost £300 billion to create the infrastructure necessary to replace gas heating by electricity. As a first step, considerable scope exists for improvement through straightforward measures to encourage better insulation in older homes and by promoting solar water heating and adopting energy efficient designs in new commercial and domestic buildings. As part of this, consideration should be given as to how the local taxation system could be adjusted to encourage improved the energy efficiency in older homes, offices, public buildings and industrial premises.

District Heating

In the short and medium term, very significant savings in energy consumption and in CO2 emissions could be achieved by promoting district heating schemes using energy from renewable sources, such as combined heat and power systems using waste materials as feedstock. This approach is being successfully pursued in Denmark, where 30% of energy currently goes to heat domestic buildings and district heating is being energetically expanded. Success depends on a favourable regulatory and funding environment and the engagement of local partners, including local authorities, residents associations and social housing providers. For such a strategy to be effective in the UK, where almost all domestic heating is individualised, the concept of district heating will need to be actively promoted using public and community resources and commitment. Consideration should also be given to introducing a charge on waste heat to encourage the development of a market in heat and to provide a source of funding for the development of local district heating schemes.

Beyond that, the best strategy could be to retain the gas distribution network, while replacing fossil natural gas with hydrogen (whose combustion products are water vapour and oxygen). Subject to a substantial increase in electricity generation, this could be produced from water using electricity from wind, tidal power and nuclear fission at night, when domestic and business demand is low – an approach which would also help to optimise the use of generating capacity by smoothing the pattern of demand.

The Case for a Carbon Tax

Energy consumption in industrial processes has declined steadily over the last half-century, primarily due to the long-term decline in energy-hungry manufacturing industry. Price is likely to be the most effective driver of further reductions. Unfortunately, inspired by right-wing small government ideology, the international community is now committed to a cumbersome and bureaucratic market-based system of carbon emissions trading as the primary stimulus for raising the cost of fossil fuels to large industrial emitters.  A more effective and more easily enforceable means to cut industrial carbon dioxide emissions would be to introduce a carbon tax, a strategy successfully pioneered in Sweden and in California.

Power Generation

The variable and intermittent nature of solar and wind generation limit the extent to which existing renewable technologies can replace conventional generation. Experiments in the United States show that carbon capture is unlikely to play a significant part in reducing emissions. Resolving the problem through long-distance distribution, storage, tidal power and (arguably) fusion may be possible in time. Meanwhile, society faces a trade-off between maintaining nuclear capacity and building up large-scale tidal generation, investing massively in energy storage and transmission, or accepting higher fossil fuel emissions for longer. Resolving this dilemma demands a robustly evidence-based approach coupled with open and informed public debate and a willingness by politicians to stand up to simplistic populist arguments which conflict with scientific evidence.

Currently countries such as Canada, Switzerland and France, which combine a significant nuclear power sector with hydro-electric generation, have the lowest carbon emissions among the advanced economy countries. Germany, which is due to close the last of its nuclear power stations by 2022, has seen emissions rise significantly as it has reverted to burning lignite to make up for declining nuclear generation.

In Japan too, the closure of nuclear power plants following concerns over the possible health effects of the Fukushima disaster has led to increased coal-fired generation. Experience in these two countries suggests that with current technologies, abandoning the policy of maintaining a significant element of nuclear generation in the energy mix could only be achieved at the cost of increased climate change gas emissions.

The Radical Party considers that addressing climate change should be given the highest possible priority over the coming decades with the aim of moving to a wholly renewable-based energy system as soon as this becomes technically and financially possible in the early part of the second half of the century.

SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS

Public Engagement

  • sustain and develop the leading role of British universities and institutes in research into global environmental threats;
  • prioritise international collaboration in research and to develop and implement strategies for tackling global environmental threats; 
  • create a new ministerial post with responsibility for promoting public understanding of scientific issues of relevance to public policy;
  • develop a formal strategy for the enhancement of the public understanding with funding for the expansion of the community of public science understanding professionals;
  • support outreach activities and engagement with the public and the media to improve understanding of the scientific dimension of environmental threats. 

Climate Change

  • tighten the target for cutting net carbon emissions by 2050 from the existing 80% commitment and ensure that this more demanding target is met;
  • raise public awareness by preparing and promoting a user-friendly report to the nation on progress towards the objective of a carbon neutral economy and society; 
  • restore the Climate Change Levy to a level which will sustain continuing strong growth in renewable capacity, or replace it by an equivalent taxation and benefits-based support system, which might better reflect the interests of people on low incomes;
  • replace the carbon trading system with a carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions.

Consumption

  • step up measures to promote energy efficiency in all sectors of the economy using fiscal and other measures to penalise failure and reward success;
  • promote better energy management to reduce the need for additional generation at times of peak consumption;
  • increase support for the adoption of combined heat and energy and district heating systems; 
  • expand energy storage capacity; 
  • support research into likely impact of the move to electric vehicles and carbon-free heating and industrial processes in terms of the demand for electricity. 

Generation

  • encourage wider public understanding of the risks involved, on the one hand, in constructing new nuclear power plants and, on the other, of delaying the reduction of emissions in terms of climate change and mortality linked to fossil fuel pollutants;
  • sustain and develop collaboration at the European and international levels to develop and promote new clean technologies and maximise the efficiency of energy generation and distribution;  
  • increase research into realistic long-term alternatives to gas and nuclear energy, with increased funding for pilot experiments in energy saving, tidal power and fuel cell technology.