Heathrow shows clear air between parties

Environment Editor Michael McCarthy assesses the battle for the eco-vote

At six minutes past one last Monday afternoon, Linda McCutcheon answered her mobile phone in Sipson, Middlesex, and the environment, the forgotten issue of this election, suddenly became a live concern. She listened, scowled, and then pronounced: "That's put the stopper on it. I'm voting Tory."

Mrs McCutcheon had just been informed of the passage in the Labour manifesto – section 1:8, if you're interested – in which the party pledges it will allow no new runways to be built at British airports for the duration of the next parliament, except for the fact that it will allow the building of a third runway at Heathrow.

As chair of the residents' association in Sipson, a village which Heathrow Runway Three will obliterate, Mrs McCutcheon has a keen interest in the issue, which is one of the few green questions which this time clearly divides the parties. Labour would build Runway Three, whereas all the other parties would cancel it on the grounds that such expansion is inconsistent with the aim of reducing the carbon emissions causing climate change.

It is the Conservative opposition to Runway Three which is perhaps the most surprising. It stems from the original embrace of green issues by David Cameron as a means of "decontaminating the brand" of Toryism, and now it remains as a talisman of Tory environmental concern, demonstrating a clear policy difference between Conservatives and Labour, and a clear choice – if you're interested in the issue.

In Sipson, people are. And Mrs McCutcheon and her fellow voters in the Hayes and Harlington constituency face a dilemma – whether to vote for their current Labour MP, John McDonnell, who has fought consistently and fiercely against the third runway, when a vote for him may help his party to achieve a majority and build the new runway anyway. Mrs McCutcheon admits the dilemma, and admits to admiring Mr McDonnell, but the Labour manifesto finally swung her the Tory way. Another local anti-aviation activist Paddy Reynolds, on the other hand, says he will vote for Mr McDonnell regardless. For others, the issue is still to be decided.

But outside Sipson, in the rest of the country, they seem to be a lot less concerned, and Labour and the Conservatives have taken the view that the environment in all its forms is of much less interest to people in the aftermath of a great recession.

You can see that quite clearly when you examine their manifestos: together they now put the environment way down the scale of importance. Simply in terms of space, Labour has least to say, with just over four pages of text, in its manifesto's eighth section; in terms of positioning, the Conservatives have the issue even further back, with the environment not beginning until page 89 of the Tory document, but then they do have more than eight pages of text to Labour's four.

The Liberal Democrats, however, remain ostensibly a lot more concerned about greenery, although if you search their manifesto you will not find a dedicated environmental segment. This is because the issue is threaded through all the other sections , with bright green pointers to each policy with an environmental thrust; while in the index, the environment has more entries than any other subject – 14, as compared to a mere nine for the economy.

The Green Party manifesto might seem the touchstone by which to judge the environmental soundness of the other parties' green promises, but the emphasis of the Greens' campaign has shifted this year from their original ecological principles to a radical new agenda of social justice and equality. The environment, as such, does not arrive until section four of the Green manifesto, beginning on page 33, but then there are eight pages of detailed and solidly packed proposals.

Yet where the issue is placed, and how much space is given to it, may matter less than what the parties' policies actually are, and two in particular are of overarching importance: climate change, and the countryside and the natural environment.

On climate change in general there is consensus: despite the doubts of some Tory backbenchers, all parties officially agree it is real, and that action is required to counter it, principally by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. All parties would set up some sort of Green Investment Bank for the renewable energy schemes necessary to transform Britain into a low-carbon economy, which is a common aim (though differing in the detail.)

The most obvious difference is Heathrow Runway Three; after that, the next main difference is on the contribution nuclear power could make, as an energy source which is largely CO2-free. Labour and the Tories both now have nuclear as a key component of their global warming strategies, but in an example of what you might call Old Green thinking, both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens rule it out, pointing out the problem of dealing with radioactive waste and the dangers of nuclear accidents, proliferation and terrorist attack. (The Liberal Democrats and Greens would scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent, for good measure.)

When it comes to actual pledges for cutting emissions, the Greens, with zero chance of running the government, feel able to promise to reduce CO2 by 65 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, and by 90 per cent by 2030. If only. The Liberal Democrats say they will cut emissions by "over 40 per cent" of 1990 levels by 2020, and make the British economy carbon-neutral (ie producing no net emissions) by 2050. The Tories say they will cut emissions by 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050 – which is now the generally-agreed aim of the industrialised countries – but do not mention any interim target (ie for 2020). Labour does not mention a 2050 target – presumably an 80 per cent reduction is taken as given – but says that it will try to increase the current UK 2020 target of a 34 per cent reduction in CO2, as long as a more ambitious EU-wide agreement can be reached (although it does not spell it out, the increase would probably be to a 42 per cent reduction, as recommended by the Climate Change Committee).

On the countryside, there is the other potentially divisive issue between the parties: hunting with hounds. The Conservatives are isolated in promising a free vote on whether to scrap Labour's 2004 Hunting Act which banned it, although this has been carefully kept out of its manifesto's environment section (it's on page 80, at the end of the section on "Restoring Our Civil Liberties"). Almost as if to compensate, the Tories make several promises about promoting animal welfare, on farms and in research, and on banning ivory trading and whaling. All parties commit themselves to enhancing the natural environment as well as protecting it, although what effect spending cuts will have on these promises remains to be seen.

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