5 ways the Tories have failed the environment

Support for fracking and the appointment of a climate sceptic show the environment is low on the list of Cameron's priorities


In the run up to the General Election, Left Foot Forward is taking a look back at the coalition’s record. This week we focus on the environment, and each day we will feature a piece which looks at the impact of coalition policies on the planet over the past five years. 

The image of a fresh faced David Cameron hugging a husky in 2006 has become an iconic image of broken Tory promises. Since that photo was taken, the Conservatives have neglected and reneged on their environmental pledges; most memorably, Cameron himself called for an end to all the ‘green crap’ in 2013.

With the UK on track to miss its future emissions targets, it’s time for the Conservatives to face up to their failure on the environment.

1. Opposing EU-wide green measures

At the European Parliament the Tories have shown that, unhampered by Lib Dem influence, they’ll attack the environment every time. Take the 2013 vote on deep sea trawling, when the opposition of Tory MEPs saw the EU narrowly fail to adopt a ban on fishing below 600 metres, a practice regarded by scientists as extremely destructive.

The Tories also voted against efforts to strengthen the EU’s carbon emissions trading scheme in 2013, swinging the vote against a proposal to push up carbon costs and make greener alternatives more attractive. Meanwhile they voted against 2014 proposals to reduce the use of plastic bags, an estimated eight billion of which end up as litter each year, choking European seas.

The Tories are obsessed with the idea of cutting environmental ‘red tape’, as was demonstrated by George Osborne in 2011 when he blamed ‘a decade of environmental laws and regulations [for] piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies’. During the same speech the chancellor officially called for an end to all talk of UK leadership on climate change:

“We’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.”

2. Raising rail fares

Since 2010, the average season ticket for UK railways has risen by 27 per cent, two-and-a-half times faster than the average wage increase. The TUC’s campaign group Action for Rail (AfR) calculated that Britons pay almost twice as much for rail travel as their European counterparts. This inevitably drives people to use higher carbon forms of transport like planes and cars.

Ecopassenger calculates that travelling between London and Edinburgh by train emits 33.8 kg of CO2, whereas travelling by car emits 70.5 kg and travelling by plane emits 91.5 kg. As it is often cheaper to travel by plane than by car, the government’s transport policies can be seen to be directly driving up CO2 emissions.

The Tories have now pledged to freeze rail fares, but this simply means that fares will be capped at the level of inflation, and thus will almost certainly continue to rise. The most recent fare rise in January 2015 was actually ‘frozen’ at the level of inflation (2.5 per cent) in 2014.

3. Planning to scrap wind farms

According to David Cameron, the British public are ‘frankly fed up’ with the onshore wind industry, and he has pledged that under another Conservative government onshore wind turbines would provide no more than 10 per cent of the UK’s energy.

Getting rid of subsidies for wind farms would mean a gap in the decarbonisation market which could only be filled by more expensive technologies. Cameron’s pledge is as economically irresponsible as it is environmentally disastrous – trade body RenewableUK say that by 2020 onshore wind will be the cheapest form of energy. RenewableUK’s deputy chief executive Maf Smith said of Cameron’s plans:

“It’s unfortunate that we seem to have reached a point where the Conservatives are allowing Ukip to dictate Tory energy policy.”

4. Promoting fracking

The Conservative manifesto promises to continue supporting the ‘safe development’ of shale gas. David Cameron has previously blamed a lack of understanding for public opposition to fracking, and said that it could help to wean the UK off its reliance on Russian exports.

Both the extraction process and the burning of shale gas impact negatively on the environment, and the Tories’ commitment to fracking demonstrates an unwillingness to move away from fossil fuels; instead they are investing in new ways to access it, despite overhyped economic benefits and community opposition.

Ignoring warnings from climate science and environmental groups, Cameron has urged the UK to:

“Roll up the sleeves, simplify the process, make the permissions easier, [get] on with getting some wells moving.”

The Conservatives have been dishonest at many phases of their shale development programme. Most recently they backtracked on their promise to protect drinking water areas from fracking by amending the Infrastructure Bill at its final stage in the House of Lords. Donna Hume, Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, spotted a loophole in the Bill; it does not specify the designations of the areas that fall under protection, but leaves them to be set out in regulations by a Statutory Instrument before July 2015 – well after May’s election. This would give a new Tory government the chance to weaken the definitions to the point that they are meaningless.

5. Employing climate change sceptics                                                                                                  

Perhaps David Cameron’s intentions were pure when he posed with the husky. However since then he has surrounded himself with climate sceptics and deniers; a 2014 poll found that twice as many Tory Mps as Labour MPs express some doubt that climate change is caused by humans. As reported by the Guardian,

“30 Conservatives agreed ‘there is a widespread theory that climate change is largely man-made but this has not yet been conclusively proved’, and another 10 agreed that ‘man-made climate change is environmentalist propaganda for which there is little or no real evidence.'”

In 2012, Cameron appointed Owen Paterson as environment secretary. Paterson is a known climate sceptic who told a Conservative conference:

“People get very emotional about this subject [climate change] and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.”

Pateson is also on record as describing wind farms as a waste of time, and global temperature increase as ‘modest’. Days after being sacked from his post last year, Paterson signed up to give the keynote speech at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organisation which calls climate change mitigation policies ‘extremely damaging and harmful’.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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