Objective 8

Science and the Environment

Britain has played an exceptional part in the advance of science and has benefited from this through knowledge-based enterprises, which contribute hugely to our prosperity. But this advantage is under threat as investment in research declines in relation to our international competitors. Key factors in this are the low level of public investment in science (which should stimulate investment by the private sector); Brexit; our poor performance in maths, science and engineering; and obstacles for skilled people from abroad who wish to work in the UK.

 

Science and Research

The Party supports the call by the Campaign for Science and Engineering for government investment in research to be raised from the current 0.5% of GDP and for efforts to increase not-for-profit and private spending on science and R&D from the current 1.0% to 2.0% of GDP, to match the levels achieved in Germany and the US. It supports the appointment of science champions in primary schools from among the existing staff, coupled with a determined effort to raise the number of school students (especially girls) studying maths and science.

Measures are also needed to ensure that students in further and higher education are not deterred by additional costs associated with studying science or engineering and to encourage more people to study these subjects at postgraduate level, where the shortfall of skills is particularly acute. The Party calls for the establishment of an annual day to celebrate the achievements of British science with funding to support activities in schools, community organisations and other relevant bodies.

The public, and young people in particular, are deeply concerned about issues such as health and the environment but it is difficult for them to translate their concern into action as the issues are often distorted by ignorance, sensationalism and lobbying by the drinks, fossil fuel and other industries. Also important are the lack of a political party which speaks clearly for science and the environment.

Reflecting our commitment to empowerment, the aim should be to enable the public to make rational comparisons between different types of risk on the basis of sound evidence. For example, people are rightly aware of the danger from human-generated ionising radiation released in the course of medical procedures, industrial testing and by past atmospheric nuclear tests, which cause about 70 premature deaths a year in the UK, while largely ignoring the threat from vehicle and central heating exhausts in the street and in our own homes, which are estimated to cause approaching 100 premature deaths every day.

A high priority, therefore, should be given to ensuring 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. 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 in the fields of health and the environment. This should involve close engagement with scientists and teachers and include expanding the community of specialists dedicated to promoting public understanding of scientific issues, backed up with more resouces for outreach through social media, schools and libraries.

 

The Environment

We rightly give a high priority to maintaining our capacity to protect ourselves from military threats. But a new threat has now emerged in the form of rapid environmental destruction, which poses as great a danger to our future well-being, and indeed survival, as war or terrorism. This section outlines the Radical Party’s approach to the environment through the example of the two most serious threats: climate change and the degradation of the ocean which surrounds us.

 

The public are deeply concerned by environmental issues and in the last General Election, a clear majority voted for parties calling for a stronger response to climate change, which, with population growth, is probably the greatest threat facing humanity. The UK 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.

The issue is also central to environmental policy as a whole because, as well as slowing global warming, addressing climate change will help address a range of other forms of environmental damage, such as atmospheric pollution, the depletion of scarce resources, and the threat to bio-diversity on land and in the sea.

The Party’s has a holistic and long-term approach to these challenges encompassing public education and mobilisation, regulatory and  fiscal changes and support for a range of emerging technical options, which will may become practicable over the coming years. Acquiring a proper understanding of the nature and extent of the issues is essential, particularly in areas such as biodiversity and the destruction of coral reefs and polar icecaps, where human activity is rapidly destroying much of the evidence. British universities and institutes have a very strong record of achievement in these areas and Government funding to expand research in these areas is critical.

 

Climate Change

Tackling climate change raises the challenge of containing the growing demand for energy while developing new, clean technologies (many of which have the potential to create sustainable jobs). The share of the UK’s energy that comes from renewable resources has increased 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 currently consumed in the form of gas for heating; second, the intermittent nature of solar and wind power and the impossibility of rapidly building a storage system to balance this; and, third, the physical, political and financial obstacles that stand in the way of hydro, tidal and nuclear generation, which experience in Canada, France and Switzerland suggests could help to resolve this dilemma.

The Government is committed by the 2008 Climate Change Act to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 80% by 2050. 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. A particular problem is that tackling climate change effectively is likely to demand a large increase in the use of electricity (for clean transport and heating), a factor which is largely being ignored.

Following the replacement of the Coalition (which had a good record on climate change) by a Conservative administration in 2015, the Government backtracked on important climate change commitments. It accelerated the phasing out of the Climate Change Levy, which supports new renewable energy projects, impeded the development of land-based wind generation (the most cost-effective technology), and cut funding for the insulation of the most energy wasteful homes. These measures have impeded plans to expand renewable energy and power storage.

At the same time, it promoted a shift from coal to gas and biomass without acknowledging that, depending on its source, leakages of methane (which has a much bigger global warming effect than CO2) can cause as much climate change damage as coal. Likewise, taking into account the whole cycle, burning imported wood waste may accelerate rather than prevent climate change.

The Conservative Government has also pursued policies which, while encouraging the separate collection of recyclable waste, have led to a increase in the use of CO2-generating high temperature incineration without energy capture, as a cheaper means of disposal than actual recycling. Waste Management, for example, is reported to have shut down 30% of its recycling capacity in the last two years.

Energy Saving

The most immediate way to tackle climate change emissions is through energy saving. Most media attention is focused on renewable power generation and replacing fossil fuel by electricity in transport (which accounts for 40% of end-user energy consumption). But to be effective, the policy must also encompass energy saving and the use of non-polluting energy in the domestic sector (29%), industry (17%) and services (14%).

Progress is being made in fuel efficiency in road and air transport 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 prospects that hydrogen-based fuel cell technology will have emerged as an alternative clean power source with different requirements in terms of materials.

While transport grabs the headlines, well over 50% of all energy consumed in the UK goes to heat and light domestic and business premises. This poses a problem as Britain’s elderly housing stock is inefficient by European standards and because heating requires a distribution infrastructure which would be enormously expensive to replace. Thus, 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 to encourage better insulation in older homes, to promote solar water heating and to adopt energy efficient designs in new commercial and domestic buildings. As part of this, consideration should be given to using the local taxation system to encourage improved energy efficiency in older homes, public buildings and business premises.

District Heating

Significant savings in energy consumption and CO2 emissions could be achieved by promoting district heating schemes using energy from renewable sources, such as anaerobic digestion and combined heat and power using waste materials as feedstock. This approach is being pursued in Denmark, where 30% of energy goes to heat domestic buildings and district heating is being energetically expanded. Success depends on having the right regulatory and funding environment and on the engagement of local authorities, residents associations and social housing providers.

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. A charge should be introduced to shift the economic balance away from simply burning rubbish (which has expanded rapidly in recent years) and to encourage the development of a market in waste heat. The proceeds from such a fund could be used to help fund district heating schemes, and (where recycling is not possible), promote high temperature incineration systems, which use heat to generate electricity.

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, coupled with smart metering, would 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 neo-conservative small-government ideology, the international community is now committed to a cumbersome and bureaucratic market-based system of carbon emissions trading as the means to raise the cost of fossil fuels to large industrial emitters.  A more effective, and fairer, way of cutting industrial emissions would be to introduce a carbon tax, a strategy which has been successfully pioneered in Sweden and California.

Power Generation

The Party considers that 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. However, the 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 be a cost-effective way of reducing emissions.

Resolving the energy supply issue through long-distance distribution, storage, tidal power and (possibly) fusion may be possible in time. Meanwhile, society faces a trade-off between maintaining nuclear capacity 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 arguments which conflict with scientific evidence.

Currently 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 by up to 5% a year as it has reverted to burning lignite to make up for declining nuclear generation. In Japan too, the closure of nuclear power plants following public concerns over the Fukushima disaster has led to increased coal-fired generation. Experience in these two countries suggests that with current technologies, abandoning a significant element of nuclear generation in the energy mix could only be achieved at the cost of increased climate change gas emissions.

 

Protecting the Oceans

Marine pollution, the impact of global warming on the world’s oceans and the destruction of fishing stocks and breeding grounds in mangrove swamps and coral reefs are a growing threat to the survival of vital food fish species and to the lives of hundreds of millions of people who live in low-lying areas around the world. As a maritime nation with an important fishing industry, an extensive continental shelf and responsibility for vast areas of the Atlantic, Antarctic, Indian, Mediterranean and Pacific oceans, Britain is uniquely placed to take a lead in addressing these problems.

A high priority should be given to protecting our inshore fishing grounds by extending marine reserves and areas where trawling is banned to protect species such as flat fish, sea bream and shell fish, which live and spawn on the seabed.

The recovery of a diverse seabed ecology in areas of the North and Irish Seas, which have been denuded by generations of trawl fishing should be promoted by encouraging operators to leave the foundation structures of redundant oil and gas rigs and wind turbines in place after operations have ceased. These measures should be backed up by increased research and investment in fish farming to relieve pressure on wild stocks and to support innovative ways to reduce pollution by plastics and farm waste by bio-digestion and innovative farming practices.

At the same time, the UK should step up efforts to help protect the ocean from the devastation it faces from pollution, industrial fishing and mining. In terms of unilateral action, Britain is uniquely well-placed to take effective steps because of its responsibilities with respect to its fourteen overseas island and sovereign territories, several of which are surrounded by extensive Exclusive Coastal Economic Zones of the greatest importance in terms of bio-diversity and the survival of endangered species.

An important step was taken in 2015, when the UK declared the ocean around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific to be a protected zone. This was followed up in the following year with the granting of similar protection to 53% of the ocean around Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, creating a total protected area around the two territories equivalent to twice the size of Spain. The Party believes that steps should now be taken to reinforce and extend the scope of protection given to fish and other wildlife in the economic zones around the UK’s Overseas Territories, while protecting the economic interests of the inhabitants.

In terms of multilateral action, discussions are now underway in the United Nations to build on the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (which regulates sea-bed mining and cable laying) to create a more comprehensive legal protection for open ocean, which lies outside of the existing 200 nautical mile exclusive coastal economic zones. Once endorsed by a sufficient number of UN member states, the proposed convention will open the way for research to provide a basis for regulating fishing and sea-bed mining and permit the establishment of marine protected zones in international waters.

A number of powerful nations, including the US and Russia and the handful of countries which dominate long distance fishing, may seek to delay or weaken effective regulation. It is essential that the UK, as an influential maritime nation, does everything it can to  push forward effective protection for the open ocean in conjunction with other wealthy countries where voters are mobilised in favour of environmental sustainability, and poor countries which wish to preserve off-shore resources for the future.

 

International Collaboration

The final challenge involves building on European and international scientific co-operation and funding. In view of the central role which EU plays in funding the UK’s participation in joint scientific research, the highest priority must be to sustain collaboration with our European partners should Brexit go ahead.

The fact that the current US President denies that human activities play a role in accelerating climate change and considers international engagement on such issues to be against his country’s interests, means that increased support is urgently needed to strengthen international law relating to climate change and the protection of the ocean.

 

SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS

Science and Research

  • increase government investment in research from the current level of 0.5% of GDP and raise not-for-profit and private spending on science and R&D from 1.0% to 2.0% of GDP;
  • support the appointment of science champions in schools and make a sustained effort to raise the number of school students (especially girls) studying maths and science;
  • ensure that students in further and higher education are not deterred by additional costs associated with studying science or engineering at postgraduate level, where the shortfall of skills in the labour market is particularly acute;
  • establishment an annual day to celebrate the achievements of British science, with funding to support activities in schools and in the community.

Public Engagement

  • develop the leading role of British universities and institutes in research into global environmental threats;
  • prioritise international research collaboration and the implementation of strategies for tackling global environmental threats; 
  • create a new ministerial post responsible  for promoting public understanding of scientific issues;
  • develop a strategy for enhancing public understanding involving engagement with the public and media to improve understanding of the scientific dimension of environmental threats. 

Climate Change

  • tighten the target of cutting net carbon emissions by 2050 from 80% to 100% and ensure that this more demanding target is met;
  • prepare and promote a user-friendly report to the nation on progress towards the objective of a carbon-neutral economy; 
  • restore the Climate Change Levy to a level which will sustain continuing strong growth in renewable capacity with measures to protect the interests of people on low incomes;
  • replace the carbon trading system with a carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions.

Energy Saving

  • step up measures to promote energy efficiency in all sectors 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 electricity consumption. 

Power Generation

  • promote 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;
  • sustain and develop collaboration at the European and international levels to 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.

Protecting the Ocean

  • extend inshore marine reserves and areas where trawling is banned to protect spawning grounds;
  • increase research and investment in fish farming to relieve pressure on wild stocks;
  • promote research into technologies which can help reduce marine pollution by chemicals and solid waste;
  •  encourage operators to leave the foundations of redundant oil rigs and off-shore wind turbines in place to encourage the recovery of a diverse seabed ecology;
  • reinforce and extend the scope of protection given to fish and other wildlife in the economic zones around the UK’s Overseas territories;  
  • give the strongest possible support for the development and implementation of the proposed UN  convention on the protection of the open ocean.  

International Collaboration 

  • ensure that whatever the outcome of the Brexit debate, a high priority is give to preserving and building on the UK’s involvement in EU research activities and funding; 
  • step up support for the development of international organisation and legislation relating to climate change the marine degradation and other critical environmental issues.