Theresa May versus Jeremy Corbyn on energy and climate change policy

We take the temperature of the two leaders' positions and find the forecast decidely mixed.

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The image of Theresa May as a cautious Lady Justice, carefully weighing decisions behind the scenes, may be working with the Brexit deal – but it might not with climate change. Rising global temperatures and increasingly extreme weather events will not move their diaries back so that the Prime Minister can conduct a little more consultation.

The US and China get this: last weekend the two world-leading economies formally announced that they will ratify the Paris Climate Agreement. So why is our government stalling on green policy? And does Jeremy Corbyn’s new environment and energy manifesto offer a better alternative?

We’ve lined up what the two leaders have said on the key issues. So far the forecast for each of their energy policy platforms is mixed with poor visibility...

Ratifying the Paris Agreement

Theresa May: “I’m happy to give you the assurance that we will indeed be ratifying the Paris agreement.” (September 2016)

Margaret Thatcher once led the world on environmental policy, particularly regarding the restoration of the Ozone layer. Sadly the same cannot be said of May and today’s climate crisis. Her above promise to ratify the Paris Agreement in this week’s PMQs trailed the annoucements of China and the US and still prevaricates on the all-important question of timing.
Jeremy Corbyn:“The task for politicians is to propose real solutions to the single most important issue facing humanity.” (September 2016)

The Corbyn team is not lacking in passionate climate rhetoric. Their website describes the new environment manifesto as “the boldest environmental policy of any major party in British history”. They have backed this up with promises to honour the Paris Climate Agreement, to bring back the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and to “champion the global shift to a low-carbon future”. It is, however, easier to be optimistic in opposition.

Hinkley Point C

Theresa May: "The government could do far more to promote green energy, rather than giving unfair subsidies to nuclear.” (2006)

May’s postponement of a decision on the new nuclear reactor at Hinkley has received a mixed response. The delay marks a distinct break from George Osborne’s support of large-scale, expensive, energy infrastructure. But in taking security advice on the involvement of Chinese firms, May has affronted one of Britain's key post-Brexit trade partners. Will someone please introduce her to Sun Tzu's Art of War?
Jeremy Corbyn: “Tories have just put up the cost of your electricity by giving a blank cheque to EDF for a power station that doesn’t work.” (July 2016)

This Tweet from Corbyn may have stunned some of the trade unions, not to mention the shadow energy and shadow business teams, but it hit the nail on the head in terms of Hinkley’s biggest flaw: its uncompetitive cost. The comment also calls out the Conservatives for failing on the very issues that they’ve repeatedly used to undermine green policy: affordability and energy security. The Labour leader's latest manifesto made no mention of nuclear power but previous statements seem to suggest his opposition. However, as the FT points out, Britain must still find ways to complement renewable energy with base-load capacity

Clean, renewable energy

Greg Clark (Theresa May's Energy Secretary): Britain could and should be the Saudi Arabia of marine energy.” (2009)

Whatever May’s policy on renewable energy turns out to be, it will be hamstrung in letter and spirit by the Cameron government's disastrous energy legacy. Scrapping support for onshore wind, ending serious energy efficiency policy for homes, selling off the green investment bank, and axing solar subsidies, have all severely hampered the UK's prospect of meeting its renewable energy targets. This mess has already led to the loss of 12,000 jobs in the UK’s solar industry and forced BEIS (the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy) to announce that the new low-carbon budget may be delayed until 2017.
Jeremy Corbyn: It isn't too late for Britain to catch up, and even lead, this energy revolution.” (2015)

The bold headline of Corbyn's new menifesto is a commitment to generate 65 per cent of Britain’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. This “democratic, community-led system of energy supply” is to be achieved through the creation of over 200 local energy companies, 300,000 new jobs, and 1,000 energy co-operatives. The launch of the manifesto at a solar-powered Library in Nottingham is a good indication of the kind of enterprise he has in mind. Nottingham City Council has also already launched its own not-for-profit energy company – Robin Hood Energy. And Switched On London has won a commitment from London Mayor Sadiq Khan to set up a similar company in the capital.

But are these proposals feasible? The Robin Hood scheme has so far beaten the “Big Six” on price, but is still neither the cheapest nor greenest provider available. Some of the technologies the manifesto would rely on, such as floating wind turbines and carbon-capture storage, are not yet up and running commercially. And, as Rebecca Williams, WWF’s UK climate and energy specialist told Carbon Brief, there aren’t any figures about how exactly he’d integrate all the different energy sources.

Headlining on the promotion of community-based energy schemes may win votes but perhaps deflects from the need for large-scale infrastructure, which will be unavoidably expensive. A chart in Corbyn's energy manifesto projects off-shore wind making up roughly half of the target renewable capacity by 2030. Will this really be acheiveable in a way that will not result in higher bills for households and businesses” (as the manifesto promises)?

Fracking

Theresa May: “When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful but of you.” (2008)

May has explicitly tied the promise of her inaugural speech as Prime Minister – to put ordinary people first – to the cause of fracking. Speaking ahead of a consultation launch for a new Shale Wealth Fund, May spoke of the need to ensure local people share in the proceeds from fracking projects. In this continues her long-held support for the controversial industry. But as Green MEP Molly Scott Cato has queried: is this a legitimate way of winning the argument?
Jeremy Corbyn: In order to have any hope of keeping the rise in temperature to 2C – let alone meeting our Paris agreement target of 1.5C – we need to keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground. This can and must be done.” (2016)

Ending the reign of fossil fuels is fundamental to tackling climate change. Corbyn has even explicitly ruled out fracking from his new manifesto. This is a welcome sign to those who heed the Committee on Climate Change's fears that fracking will make it harder for the UK to meet its emissions targets.

Environmental justice

Theresa May: "To stay reliant on fossil fuels would mean tying ourselves to increasingly unstable supplies which could endanger our energy security.” (2008)

In 2008, May was praised by the executive director of Friends of the Earth for her part in pushing the Climate Change Bill through parliament. At the time, she also voiced reservations about the expansion of Heathrow. Since coming to power, however, her policies have failed to show much corresponding leadership on green issues. In fact, so far, the moves her ministers have made seem to take their lead from business instead. The much-lauded pledge to ban plastic microbeads by 2017 was in fact already being supported by large swathes of the cosmetics industry before this government's intervention. The decision to charge business rates on small solar panel installations also seems wrong; for example, it will affect state school solar projects but not private schools and academies, which are exempt due to their their charitable status.
Jeremy Corbyn: “I’m not in favour of re-opening the mines.” (2015)

Corbyn’s new manifesto makes clear he wants to add the title of eco-warrior to his reformist mission. As Labour leadership contender Owen Smith points out, however, such commitments back-track on earlier promises, such as support for open-cast coal mining. To truly fulfil his manifesto, Corbyn will have to dig deep into yet unchartered energy policy.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.