The environment has clearly fallen down David Cameron’s agenda in the past few years with the kind of Husky-hugging scenes he was involved with in the run-up to the last election inconceivable this time round.
But with a major UN climate change conference coming up in Paris later this year, at which world leaders will attempt to agree robust action to curb global warming, and energy bills still near historically-high levels, the issue of where our electricity comes from remains a key battle ground between the parties.
Meanwhile, highly emotive issues such as fox hunting and the badger cull, while relatively insignificant in terms of their broader impact on society, are likely to punch above their weight in terms of their influence on the vote.
Labour set the cat among the pigeons in 2013 when Ed Miliband announced a 20-month cap on energy bills if elected, meaning they can fall but not rise – which remains its key election pledge on energy. Critics – most notably the Tories, closely followed by the Lib Dems – say the policy has backfired. This is because the wholesale price of gas has tumbled since the policy announcement but the big six energy suppliers have been wary of lowering their prices too much because they could get locked at that level if they are prevented from increasing them again when wholesale prices start to climb again. None of the other parties have pledged such a price cap. But they are all talking tough about regulating the big six to make sure they don’t charge too much and that they behave themselves generally after their customer service has often found to be lacking, if the frequent multi-million pound fines they receive are anything to go by.
Labour has also gone the furthest in taking on the dominance of the big six, pledging a “superpowered” regulator that could strip the big providers of their licences if they repeatedly fail to do right by their consumers and confirming plans to separate their retail and energy generation units. This should address claims – suspected but never proved – that the big energy companies sometimes switch profit from the retail side of the business to the generation side, to play down claims that they are ripping off their customers.
David Cameron, himself a keen fox hunter, has said he would hold a parliamentary vote to repeal the Hunting Act, brought in by Labour in 2005 – placing the issue at the centre of the agenda for some advocates, for whom this is the single issue that will secure their vote. Vote-OK, a lobbying group fronted by Otis Ferry, son of Roxy Music’s Bryan, is so determined to get the Hunting Act repealed that it is out canvassing for Conservative MPs on the understanding that they will do the right thing when the time comes.
Labour, meanwhile, has pledged in no uncertain terms to maintain the ban and take steps to police it more strongly, amid suspicions that hunts are frequently taking place under the cover of ‘trail’ hunts – whereby a pack of hounds chase an artificially laid fox scent. The Green Party has gone even further than Labour and wants the Fox Hunting ban to be extended to include grouse shooting and hare coursing.
The Badger Cull
This is another controversial issue that is broadly supported by The Tories and strongly opposed by Labour. The idea is to stop the spread of TB in cattle by reducing the population of badgers which help spread the disease – although opinion is strongly divided on whether this is a very good solution to the problem.
Following a trial cull of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset to determine whether it could be done safely, humanely and effectively – which was widely regarded as a failure – the Tories are committed to roll out the cull more widely under the next administration, while Labour would scrap the policy entirely.
The Green Party is the only mainstream party in England that would scrap hydraulic fracturing - although Plaid Cymru and the SNP want moratoriums on fracking in Wales and Scotland until much more research can be carried out to see if it can be done safely. The Greens opposition is based on environmental concerns – fracking has been linked to earth tremors as well as groundwater and air pollution – as well as its opposition to fossil fuels in general which it says are “incompatible with our climate change obligations”. Instead, the Green Party wants to cut energy demand by two-thirds between now and 2050 and has promised to invest up to £80bn over the next Parliament in renewable energy and energy efficiency. It would also phase out all fossil fuel power stations by 2023 at the latest.
The Tories and UKIP are very much in favour of fracking, with George Osborne in particular keen to push the technology as the answer to the country’s energy security problem. The Lib Dems also believe there is a place for fracking, although its Energy Secretary Ed Davey cautions that it should be in moderation and should not be at the expense of developing a robust renewable energy industry. Furthermore, in contrast to the right wing parties, Mr Davey has repeatedly stressed that fracking may never produce a single waft of gas, given that the commercial potential of this fledgeling industry has yet to be proven. All parties in favour talk about the need for strong regulations.
Labour is the most cautious of the mainstream parties, wanting to establish “robust” regulations “before” fracking can take place.
With the exception of UKIP – and following the replacement of climate-sceptic Tory Environment Secretary by Liz Truss last summer – all the main parties believe that global warming is a problem that is man-made and needs to be dealt with. A sceptical underbelly of Tories remains (a poll last September said one in five still believe climate change is propaganda) and it may not appear to be a pressing concern for the top brass but the prime minister and the party at large is clearly no climate change denier.
The same cannot be said for UKIP, whose energy spokesman Roger Helmer told I in December: “We think the relation between human activity and CO2 levels is open to question, while the relationship between global temperature and atmospheric CO2 levels is hugely open to question, especially as there hasn’t been any global warming for the last 18 years”.
And on Sunday, UKIP Wales leader Nathan Gill said: “We don’t agree that man is responsible for changing the climate. We think it’s hubris and we also think that the governments have realised this is a great way of taxing people and people will say ‘thank you for taxing us because you are going to save the world’”.
UKIP would even scrap the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
His views are at odds with the climate change consensus, in which 95 per cent of scientists say that global warming is happening and that fossil fuel emissions created by humans are the main cause.
Plaid Cymru wants to introduce a separate Climate Change Act for Wales, including a target to reduce emissions in Wales by 40 per cent below 1990 by 2020 and to hike investment in renewable energy.
Despite the general acknowledgement that climate change exists and is a problem, the subject has been almost entirely absent from the election campaigns as politicians accept it is not a vote winner and wish the subject would go away.
Wind Power (and other renewables)
Again, the right wing parties are very much against the “blight” of wind turbines, unless they are in the sea.
The Tories have pledged to “halt the spread of onshore windfarms”, although there will be scope for further turbines to be built in the sea, while UKIP reminded the electorate what it thinks of wind power last week.
Speaking for Wales, UKIP’s Mr Gill said it would be “complete stupidity to think by sticking a bunch of wind turbines all over Wales that we are somehow going to stop the weather from changing”. The party would also withdraw all taxpayer and consumer subsidies for new wind turbines and solar farms and scrap the UK’s legally-binding targets to cut carbon emissions.
The Liberal Democrats are in favour of much further development of wind farms – onshore and offshore – “in appropriate locations”, with plans to double the amount of electricity the UK produces from renewable sources (mainly wind) by 2020, make the electricity supply entirely green by 2030 and to make the country carbon-neutral by 2050.
The SNP is pushing renewable technology hard because as a sparsely populated country with miles of windy coastline it is well placed to capitalise on wind and tidal energy. But it is also backing the North Sea oil industry – a major contributor to the Scottish economy.
The Conservatives back a “significant expansion in new nuclear”, led by the huge Hinkley Point C project – although whether that will go ahead is still unclear. Meanwhile the Green Party strongly opposes it on the basis that it “poses unacceptable risks”. Labour and the Lib Dems accept that nuclear has a role to play – both in keeping the lights on and helping produce “low-carbon” energy while UKIP is also in favour.
Plaid Cymru and the SNP both oppose new nuclear power plants.
The Independent has got together with May2015.com to produce a poll of polls that produces the most up-to-date data in as close to real time as is possible.
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