21 Nov 2019   |   News

UK parties set out big plans on climate change in manifestos

Labour and Liberal Democrats put green policies at the centre of their pitch. Both pledge to invest 3% of GDP on research and to spread R&D funding around the regions

Political parties put out their science agendas ahead of 12 December general election. Photo: Bigstock

The UK’s Labour party pledged to fund more “targeted science, research and innovation” to tackle climate change, deal with the plastic waste filling our ocean and address problems such as the ageing population and antibiotic resistance, in its manifesto published on Thursday.

Jeremy Corbyn’s centre-left party, which hopes to get back into power for the first time since 2010, is promising to set up a £250 billion Green Transformation Fund and a new National Investment Bank.

If elected Labour would introduce a windfall tax on oil firms and delist any company from the London Stock Exchange that “fails to contribute to tackling the climate and environmental emergency.”

The party sets a target for 3 per cent of national income to go into research and development by 2030, and says it will bring rail, mail, water and energy, into public ownership.

A very concerning proposal for universities is Labour’s promise to end “the failed free-market experiment in higher education”, by abolishing tuition fees, which now stand at £9,250 a year in England, and to reintroduce maintenance grants, which help with accommodation and other living costs.

But fees, rather than grants, now comprise the vast bulk of all university income for teaching undergraduates. If they disappear, universities are more likely to target international fee-paying students, which could disadvantage UK applicants.

Universities already feel their finances are under severe threat from Brexit, which could cut EU research funding and put off European staff and students from coming to the UK.

Green opportunities

Labour says the country has fallen behind in developing and applying green technologies. Increasing investment will mitigate climate change and offers huge economic opportunities, the party says.

Labour would prioritise technologies such as heat pumps, solar hot water and hydrogen, and invest in district heat networks using waste heat.

Earlier this week Labour’s Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for science during the previous parliament, said the party draws inspiration for its research and innovation strategy from University College London economist, Mariana Mazzucato, who argues for the state to have a more hands-on direction.

A new Foundation Industries Sector Council will set out long-term clean targets for existing heavy industries like steel and glass and fund R&D into newer technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.

The party also promises an electric revolution based on the construction of three new battery manufacturing plants, or “giga-factories”, and four metal reprocessing plants.

Investment in UK-based battery R&D was dealt a blow recently, with Tesla CEO Elon Musk saying that Brexit instability swayed his decision to open a new battery R&D site in Berlin rather than the UK. Brexit had “made it too risky to put a giga-factory in the UK”, Musk said.

Labour wants to negotiate a new EU withdrawal agreement, with a customs union and a closer relationship to the single market. The new deal would then be put to a public vote, with remain an option on the ballot paper.

Labour also promises to tackle the plastic pollution by investing in a “new plastics remanufacturing industry”.

The party says it will offer “targeted bursaries” to women, black, Asian and minority ethnic people, care leavers, ex-armed forces personnel, and people with disabilities to encourage them to take up new climate-related apprenticeships, which Labour calls “the STEM of the future”.

New schools curricula will see pupils learn “both the science of climate and environmental emergency, and the skills necessary to deal with them”.

The party says it would also prioritise data protection for patient information. “We will ensure NHS [National Health Service] data is not exploited by international technology and pharmaceutical corporations,” the manifesto reads.

Lib Dems go green too, and promote AI ethics

The Liberal Democrats manifesto promises to scrap Brexit and keep the UK in the EU.

The party would keep freedom of movement with EU countries and transfer power over work permits and student visas from the Home Office to the departments for education and business instead.

The party, which currently trails the Conservatives and Labour in opinion polls, wants the UK to generate 80 per cent of UK electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and hopes to make all new cars electric.

Overseeing this climate push would be a new department of climate change and natural resources and a sustainability minister embedded in the Treasury.

The party’s spending commitments are generally more modest than Labour’s. The Lib Dems say they would pump £5 billion of initial capital into a new Green Investment Bank, using public money to attract private investment for zero-carbon priorities.

Lib Dems also talk about establishing a “Lovelace Code of Ethics” to ensure the use of personal data and artificial intelligence is “unbiased, transparent and accurate”. A "start-up allowance" to help new businesses in their opening few weeks is also mooted.

Like Labour, the Liberal Democrats say they would increase national spending on research and development to three per cent of GDP. “We will publish a roadmap to achieve this ambition by the earliest date possible, via an interim target of 2.4 per cent of GDP by no later than 2027,” the manifesto says.

There will be more support for innovation, with a goal of doubling innovation spending across the economy. One aim is to boost research and development outside the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford-Cambridge-London.

The Liberal Democrats say they will also create more ‘Catapult’ innovation and technology centres and back private investment in zero-carbon and environmental innovation.

In common with Labour, the Lib Dems see the need to develop a skilled workforce needed to support this growth. It will introduce a new two-year visa for students to work after graduation and increase the number of apprenticeships.

This will be backed by a national skills strategy for key sectors, including zero-carbon technologies, to help match skills and people and a grant scheme allow people to retrain and upskill when they need to.

Building standards will be upgraded to ensure that all new homes built from 2022 have full connectivity to ultra-fast broadband and are designed to enable the use of smart technologies.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up