The UK Green Party struggles to be heard in an election where climate change is on the back burner

There’s lots of talk of change in Britain’s election campaign, but little talk about climate change

Jill Lawless
Thursday 13 June 2024 12:26 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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There’s lots of talk of change in Britain’s election campaign, but little talk about climate change.

The U.K.’s July 4 vote to choose a new government comes after one of the wettest and warmest winters on record, part of trends that scientists attribute to global warming. But discussion of climate and the environment has taken a back seat to Britain’s sluggish economy, high cost of living and creaking health care system — and whether, as polls suggest, the governing Conservatives’ time is up after 14 years in power.

That frustrates the Green Party, which is battling a political system that makes it hard for small parties to win seats in Parliament, and a political climate that discourages expensive, long-term environmental promises.

“I think they are very wrong, the other parties, to ignore climate change and the big investment that’s needed,” said Sian Berry, one of 574 Green candidates running in England and Wales for the 650-seat House of Commons – and one of the few with a good chance of winning. The party held just one seat in Parliament before the election.

“I think people these days do recognize that to solve climate change is not something you do on the side, it has to be part of all your policies,” Berry said over the sound of screeching seagulls in the seaside city of Brighton on England’s south coast.

The governing Conservatives boast that Britain is a leader in embracing renewable energy and cutting the carbon emissions that fuel climate change. U.K. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by half from 1990 levels, mainly because coal has largely been eliminated from electricity generation.

But environmentalists say the U.K. has recently gone into reverse.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is battling to close a polling gap with the opposition Labour Party, has criticized “unaffordable eco-zealotry,” approved new North Sea oil drilling and pledged to build more gas-fired power plants, while insisting the U.K. can still meet its goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has scrapped the party’s pledge to invest 28 billion pounds ($36 billion) a year in green projects if elected, replacing it with a smaller commitment. He blames the parlous state in which the Conservatives have left the public finances.

The lack of action alarms climate scientists, more than 400 of whom wrote to the political parties to warn that any leader “who does not make stronger climate action a priority for the next five years and beyond will place the prosperity and well-being of the British people at severe risk.”

The Green Party embraces that message, but faces a struggle to be heard, and to convince voters that it’s not just about the environment. The party’s 44-page election manifesto, released on Wednesday, includes policies on housing, health care, education, employment and defense as well as green issues.

Its pledges are expensive, including 24 billion pounds a year to insulate homes and 40 billion pounds a year invested in the green economy. The party is upfront about the tax increases needed to pay for them, including a carbon tax, a wealth tax on the very rich and an income tax hike for millions of higher earners.

The Greens’ challenge is that while research suggests climate ranks among voters’ top five priorities, it often comes well behind everyday issues like housing costs or healthcare waiting lists.

War in Ukraine and surging migration also have elbowed the green agenda aside in Britain and beyond. Green parties lost ground in countries including France and Germany in elections for the European Parliament this month, amid a surge for the far right.

In the town of Dartford, southeast of London, 27-year-old construction worker Harry Colville said he thinks climate change is important, but “I’m more worried about my life right now. More about the near future for myself.”

Emma Jade Larsson, who is about to graduate in medical neuroscience from the University of Sussex in Brighton, said she understands why the cost of living is a top concern.

“Food banks are becoming more and more of a need in this country,” she said. “A lot of people are going through really difficult times right now. So I do understand the focus on it, but I think there is also definitely a need to focus on more than one issue at this moment, and look after people now but also people to come.”

Unlike many European countries, the U.K. does not use a system of proportional representation. Its first-past-the-post electoral system, in which the candidate who gets the most votes in a constituency wins, favors the two big parties. The Greens got just 2.7% of votes cast in the 2019 election.

Even so, Greens have won hundreds of seats on local councils, and are targeting up to four seats in Parliament, including Berry’s constituency of Brighton Pavilion. Part of a city renowned for its pebbly beach, independent streak and vibrant alternative culture, it was represented for 14 years by Britain’s first -- and so far only -- Green lawmaker, Caroline Lucas.

When Berry visits the steep streets of Brighton’s Round Hill district, many of the Victorian houses have Vote Green signs in their windows.

Roger Ballance, a university worker who has voted both Labour and Green in the past, said the Greens “present a different side, it’s refreshing.”

“You need diverse voices in Parliament," he said. "If it’s just binary, it lets both of them be way too narrow in their political thinking.”

Matt Brown is skeptical that Britain’s politicians are grasping the scale of the environmental challenge. He’s new projects director at the Brighton Energy Cooperative, which installs rooftop solar panels on schools, businesses, soccer stadiums and other businesses.

It’s a growing business, but Brown says “it’s literally a drop in the ocean."

“We need gigawatts and gigawatts of power. We need to generate it in a renewable manner, and we need to do it now,” he said.

“I would like to see the upcoming government grab the issue by the horns,” he added. "We’re staring down the barrel of a gun, and we need to do something about it.”

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Associated Press journalists Kwiyeon Ha in Brighton and Laurie Kellman in Dartford, England contributed to this story.

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