Manifesto Check: Greens go big on environment but what’s the political end game?

‘Hi, have you got five minutes to talk about the environment?’ Steve Parsons/PA

The Green Party’s policies are everything one would expect from a party that prioritises the environment and sees climate change as the defining aspect of Britain’s future relationship with energy. Among the most significant on energy alone are:

  • A zero-carbon economy by 2050, beyond the Climate Change Act’s plan to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050
  • A campaign to improve energy efficiency, including energy awareness programmes, free retrofitting of home insulation, and all new homes to be built to Passivhaus standard
  • A greater role for community, municipal and other not-for-profit energy generation to break the dominance of the Big Six energy companies
  • Substantially increased investment in renewables, a ban on fracking, and phasing out coal-fired power stations by 2023 and nuclear by 2025.

The commitments continue apace on other environmental issues:

  • Ecological tax reforms to reduce VAT and employers’ National Insurance in exchange for new taxes on water consumption, plastic bags, pesticides and artificial fertilizers)
  • VAT on aviation and the return of the fuel duty escalator
  • Renationalising the railways and heavy-duty investment in public transport and walking and cycling
  • Pressing for a Contraction and Convergence approach to the new international agreement on climate change due to be negotiated in Paris this December to give every citizen across the world a fair and equal share of global emissions potential

Academic pedigree

There’s little doubt that these pledges are ambitious and have strong academic pedigrees. Ecological tax reform, for instance, draws heavily on the ideas of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, whose notion of shifting the burden of taxes from labour to pollution was deployed widely in Germany in 1990s and 2000s. Similarly, the idea of introducing carbon quotas for each individual and business in the UK regardless of wealth, with trading of allowances has been much discussed in recent years.

The commitments to energy efficiency and a wholesale shift from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewables – and the rejection of fracking – reflect Green principles but may be expensive and the ability of renewables to provide enough base-load energy remains hotly debated (see article by Mark Diesendorf in The Conversation and Jon Samseth in Environmental Development).

However, the Greens’ pledges are only likely to hold much sway if the party wins enough seats to secure a negotiating berth alongside the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru in the event of a hung parliament. Current predictions by Election Forecast are that it will hold Brighton Pavilions but not secure any more seats, despite possibly capturing 5% of the overall vote.

Costing it out

This puts some perspective on a second key question: are the Greens’ energy and environmental policies adequately costed? The manifesto’s projected expenditure on energy alone between 2015 and 2019 is £86.9 billion. The lynchpin of the Greens’ strategy, as the table below shows, is a slowing of deficit reduction, justified against the need to borrow to fund investment.

Green Party

This is again consistent with the party’s convictions and is partly buttressed by lower assumption of real GDP growth than those of the present coalition, but it also depends heavily on a surge in government revenues (between 4-8% a year higher than the coalition’s plans) from wealth taxes, VAT on aviation, reducing tax avoidance and evasion, the abolition of National Insurance thresholds, and reduced tax relief on pensions.

Political stakes and end games

So are the Green Party’s policies achievable and are they likely to be acceptable to the UK public and business? Certainly, many of them are technically feasible and economically plausible if the Greens’ finances are accepted and renewables can provide adequate base-load energy. But on acceptability it’s likely to be more of a marmite situation.

On the plus side, many may support – or at least sympathise with – bans on fracking and nuclear, investment in energy efficiency and non-car transport, reversing rail privatisation, renewable energy, and for different reasons, reductions in VAT and National Insurance. But the fuel duty escalator was abandoned in 1999 as a result of public discontent at above inflation fuel price increases, and some (though not all) sections of the rural population will bridle at the thought of accelerated on-shore wind and solar programmes.

The Greens’ raft of new taxes is unlikely to go down well with many businesses and voters despite the promise of no net increase in overall tax burdens promised by ecological tax reform, and it’s difficult to predict how personal carbon quotas will be received.

Perhaps the crux of the issue is how many sympathisers with the Green Party’s policies will convert into active supporters on May 7, and will announcing more radical or more moderate policies make much of a difference? There certainly seems to be some appetite for political change in the UK but it may not have enough of an environmentalist tinge for the Greens to leverage much bargaining power. In such a situation, it may make sense for the Greens to stay true to their convictions and then work out what they’re prepared to compromise on if they get a tilt at power sharing.