Britain goes to the polls again on Thursday, and the latest U.K. election campaign has been nothing if not unorthodox.
Each of the leaders of the two major parties are unloved by large swaths of their own party’s traditional base. Brexit has created divides within both tribes as well. And the question of a second Scottish independence referendum offers a high-stakes backdrop.
A marked shift in this election is the emergence of the environment as an issue of major concern for voters.
Pollster YouGov asked people to list their top three issues in the runup to the 2017 election and again last month. The environment was named by just under 10 percent of respondents in 2017 but has jumped to 25 percent for 2019 — the same proportion as the economy. (Brexit was top in both polls.)
This election is also the first since a certain Swedish teenager and several Extinction Rebellion interventions pushed climate change right up the agenda.
That fact prompted the left-leaning Channel 4 News to host a Leaders’ climate debate. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn was joined by his counterparts from the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the Welsh and the Scottish Nationalists — but Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexiteer-in-Chief Nigel Farage were conspicuously absent. Instead, they were replaced by two ice sculptures of the Earth that slowly melted under the lights as the debate progressed.
Much to the chagrin of the Conservatives, former environment secretary Michael Gove turned up at the studio and attempted to fill in, only to have the other party leaders refuse to debate a ringer, and a non-party leader to boot.
It was billed as the first dedicated climate change debate for party leaders, and it is hard to imagine it will be the last. It was a surreal spectacle at times as the respective leaders dipped their toes into energy wonkery. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon raised the need to decarbonize the gas grid, to the nation, during primetime.
Who's promising what
The next prime minister will come from one of two parties. For its part, the Conservative manifesto is a fairly cautious one, avoiding rocking the political boat on many energy issues.
The Tories have committed to the 2050 Net Zero target, set a goal for offshore wind of 40 gigawatts by 2030 (compared to less than 10 gigawatts in place today), and are setting aside funds for an £800 million ($1.05 billion) investment in carbon capture and storage by the mid-2020s.
There’s also £500 billion ($660 million) for decarbonizing industry and unspecified funding for work on hydrogen.
The Conservatives have been routinely forecast to achieve an absolute majority in the House of Commons since the election date was set, though the size of that majority has been fluctuating.
Labour, currently the second-largest party, is treading a very different path. The party's manifesto is a drastic departure from the status quo featuring no fewer than six proposed nationalization efforts — including a major chunk of the electricity sector.
In the wake of the manifesto launch, National Grid and utility SSE both registered new holding companies in tax havens.
Labour is proposing a £250 billion ($330 billion) Green Transformation Fund that would bankroll both renewable and low-carbon energy, including new nuclear, as well as supporting an overhaul of transport infrastructure. Its renewables support covers solar and onshore and offshore wind.
Both parties support the development of an energy storage gigafactory (three in Labour’s case) to future-proof U.K. car manufacturing and speed along the decarbonization of private transport.
The Conservatives have promised a consultation on bringing forward the 2040 date for phasing out the sale of combustion engines. A 2032 date has been recommended by a parliamentary committee. Labour has looked to undercut that by promising a ban by 2030.
All parties are committed to the 2050 Net Zero target. Beginning to plot a route to achieving that target will be a top priority.
Brexit has created an administrative and decision-making bottleneck. If the next government administration can command a majority of one form or another, it is likely Brexit’s first “divorce” phase will draw to a close and free up some oxygen for other issues. A raft of trade deals and the future relationship with the EU will be negotiated once the divorce is settled.
The winner's inbox
So with space to tackle some other legislation, what’s on the climate and energy to-do list?
In October there was confirmation that the Cabinet will begin holding a committee meeting dedicated to climate change. That elevates climate from one siloed department and mainstreams climate issues across health, transport, education, defense and the all-powerful Treasury. The current prime minister revealed at the same time that he would personally chair the new committee. In the event of Johnson not winning, it's hard to imagine anyone else failing to follow suit.
Any department not already planning for climate change can expect to have a lot of catching up to do.
This time next year, the U.K. will host the U.N.’s COP 26 climate talks. That’s much more than an exercise in party planning: The host also chairs proceedings, sets the tone and directs the diplomatic traffic for the competing interests of roughly 200 groups of negotiators.
Turning up to host labeled a laggard is not a good look. So expect whoever lands in Number 10 Downing Street to have some concrete plans in place, for the sake of face-saving if nothing else.
Blowing in different directions
Onshore wind is one area where there is a clear point of difference among the major parties.
As it stands, there is an effective moratorium on planning permission being granted for new onshore wind projects. It was a vote-winner for the Conservatives among wealthy, middle-class voters in more rural areas. They are the only party refusing to commit to a renewed push for onshore wind.
Some in the industry want to go further than removing planning hurdles and reopen the contracts for difference auctions for onshore wind and solar. But one onshore wind developer told GTM they’d sooner focus on subsidy-free projects than participate in CFD auctions.
That sentiment is a reminder of something else that has changed since the last election and certainly since the last "regular" one in 2015: Renewables developers are no longer asking for handouts.
The grid is working on an expedited timetable to support 100 percent renewables. Power companies around Europe are asking for more climate ambition. Certain oil supermajors are saying they’re 80 percent on the same page as Extinction Rebellion. Drax Power is looking to be the country’s first negative-emissions company.
Government support is now about removing regulatory obstacles, lubricating certain early-stage technologies and creating long-term stability for investors. All the major parties are pushing in the same direction, just at different speeds.