Net zero

We need no reminding that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity.  It is directly contributing to humanitarian emergencies from heatwaves, wildfires, floods, tropical storms and hurricanes and they are increasing in scale, frequency and intensity.

How should the UK – and politicians vying for office – respond?

Polling by More in Common consistently shows that British voters see “climate change and the environment” as one of the top three issues facing the country.  This is a remarkable increase from just a few years ago.  But the UK is doing nowhere near enough to meet its legally binding “net zero” target – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100% from 1990 levels by 2050.

Over recent months, Rishi Sunak has backtracked on key net zero policies as he tries to draw new political dividing lines.  Labour have promised a multi-billion-pound green prosperity plan, but they keep pushing back its timetable and planned scope.

And what about the Liberal Democrats?  In the mid-1990s, we were the first UK political party to publish a comprehensive programme to address climate change.  Sixteen years ago, we were the first to set a net zero target for 2050.  Liberal Democrats in coalition presided over a quadrupling of renewable energy and established the world’s first Green Investment Bank.

But we seem to have lost our public profile on climate change and net zero.  In the 2000s, opinion polls often showed the Liberal Democrats scoring in double figures as the best party to handle the environment or climate change.  In July 2023, YouGov found that just 4 per cent of voters thought we were the best party to handle both issues.

This second episode of Green Book Pod examines the place of the Liberal Democrats in the net zero debate.  Do the Liberal Democrats have the robust policies needed to achieve the UK’s net zero targets and, at the same time, build a lasting prosperity?

What new, eye catching net zero policies should the party consider?

And what messages and stories should the Liberal Democrats use to present our net zero policies to voters?

Our three great guests were:

Tom Burke, co-founder and chair of the E3G think tank, a visiting Honorary Professor of Imperial and University Colleges, London and a Senior Associate of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

James Murray, the founding editor of BusinessGreen and one of the U.K.’s leading commentators on low carbon policy, economics and technology.

Chris Willmore, a former professor of sustainability and law; she is currently cabinet member for Planning, Regeneration and Infrastructure at South Gloucestershire Council.

The chair of the session was Josh Babardine parliamentary spokesman for the Eastbourne and Willingdon Liberal Democrats.

Synopsis and analysis

It’s important to remember that the Liberals, forerunner to today’s LibDems, were Britain’s original Green Party.  We were into environmentalism in the 1920s when the Liberal Party’s Yellow Book proposed setting up national parks. T he party’s manifesto at the February 1974 general election was one of the greenest ever, and the Liberals had policies in the 1979 manifesto decrying the measurement of economic growth in terms of GDP.

Yet in a YouGov opinion poll five months ago that asked “Which political party do you think would be best to handle the environment and climate change?”, the Lib Dems came fourth.  The Greens were top with 25%, Labour second with 15%, the Conservatives third on 12%, and we polled just 4% (others 2%, don’t know 26%, none 17%).  Yet the party’s commitment to the environment is integral to Liberalism – Liberals regard the environment as part of the common good, so we condemn any entity that harmfully exploits the natural environment.

The problem, therefore, is the messaging: how do we Lib Dems get voters to see that we are a fundamentally green party?

The podcast discussion revealed different approaches to the central issue of how to make the Lib Dems distinctive on green issues.  It covered several aspects of the environmental debate, including the risk of voter backlash, and that old chestnut of how you find the balance between, on the one hand, letting the state set the price signals and then leaving it to individuals and businesses to be the change, and, on the other, allowing the state a bigger role in order to green our way of life via a ‘just transition’.

Two things in particular shone through.

Firstly, the Lib Dems need to tell more positive stories from environment-land.  The environment has become too “doom and gloom”, yet there are an awful lot of good news stories of people doing positive and meaningful things to reduce their carbon footprint and other environmentally beneficial things, and if we don’t shout about them, the negativity surrounding environmental action put about by the right-wing press will win the day.  “Show, not tell,” as Willmore and Burke both agreed, and Burke talked about the party encouraging a “Missing Voices” feature in Lib Dem literature, in which local tales of admirable environmental action should be highlighted.

Secondly, the party needs to make a clearer link between doing the right thing environmentally and reducing the cost of living and enhancing quality of life.  Many aspects of environmental action are left to the affluent middle classes, with the right choices proving too expensive or too complex for people on lower incomes to make.  Lib Dem environment policy should therefore be focused on making it easy for every socioeconomic group to do its bit, like making insulation easier to have installed, or making the purchase of a bus season ticket or bicycle more spreadable.  And it starts with the language we use – if we talk about warm homes, lower costs, clean energy, rewarding jobs, and such like, we make the environment more meaningful than sticking to the technocratic language that populates environmental debate.

With Rishi Sunak judging that there is political capital to be made from doing the wrong thing – like issuing new extraction licences for North Sea oil when climate scientists are saying it must stay in the ground – differentiating Lib Dem policy from the Conservatives will be easy.  Differentiating it from Labour will be much harder, but the priority is to get voters to see the Lib Dems as an inherently environmental party, so we don’t lose the votes of those who want to show they care about the world today’s youngsters will inherit. At the moment that is not the case.

The party’s task is therefore to find an environment policy that cuts through, rather than one that is distinctive from Labour’s.  Yet the two are effectively the same thing, as only something different will cut through.  With the environmental movement having relatively little to show  for 40 years of campaigning in Britain, and with it having got sucked in to being painted as a negative movement (because it’s always seen criticising decisions by government and big business), there’s a massive opening for the Lib Dems to develop a positive approach to fighting climate change and protecting our natural heritage.  If we can get it right, it could be the most exciting development in the environmental arena since the bread-slicing knife.