Climate change and nature loss impact UK election issues in important and underappreciated ways

A new UK government must confront these issues to meet voter expectations.

Expert comment Published 27 June 2024 3 minute READ

The UK general election campaign has not, so far, seen much focus on what might have in the past been reductively described as ‘green issues’. 

On the surface, this is not surprising. In the Ipsos Issues Index for June 2024, pollution / environment / climate change was ranked only the eleventh most important issue facing Britain, suggesting such topics are highly unlikely to decide the election. 

However, beneath the surface, climate change and nature loss are inextricably linked with the most pressing issues that UK voters identify – and will only become more so over the coming years. 

Cost of living

YouGov found the cost of living to be the issue most likely to determine how people in the UK will vote, and for good reason. The 2019–24 parliament saw the worst fall in living standards on record, with the UK experiencing more than ten years’ worth of ‘normal’ inflation between March 2021 and May 2024.

A more persistent contributor to food price inflation has been rising temperatures. 

This has been driven in large part by food and energy prices, which rose by 31 per cent and 90 per cent respectively. Climate change, and the measures needed to mitigate it, are tightly connected with both.  

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was the primary cause of a surge in agricultural commodities and inputs prices. But a more persistent contributor to food price inflation has been rising temperatures. 

In 2023, it is estimated that climate change increased food price inflation by 5.3 per cent, approximately one-third of the total increase, as droughts, floods and other forms of extreme weather hit agricultural production. 

The UK remains deeply exposed to volatile international fossil fuel markets, especially for transport and domestic heating.

The invasion also caused the price of fossil fuels to dramatically spike, especially gas. The UK, which depends heavily on gas for generating electricity and heating homes, was particularly exposed. This was in no small part due to the rollback in the early 2010s of measures intended to promote the deployment of renewable energy and incentivize energy efficiency, such as home insulation. 

Scrapping these policies is estimated to have added £19 billion to energy bills since the invasion. And, the UK remains deeply exposed to volatile international fossil fuel markets, especially for transport and domestic heating.

Many voters will also have experienced their insurance premiums going up. The average cost of insuring a home rose by 36 per cent in 2023, and premiums are forecast to continue rising. 

Here, too, climate change is playing a role, as very hot summers make houses sink into the ground, extreme cold bursts water pipes, and floods and storms cause extensive damage to property. The value of weather-related insurance claims in 2023 was the highest on record

The Bank of England’s response to soaring inflation, to raise interest rates to their highest level since the 2007-2008 financial crisis, has increased mortgage repayments for millions, while deterring investment in renewable energy – harming efforts to reduce emissions and increasing exposure to future energy price shocks.

Health and the economy

Climate change and nature loss also directly impact the National Health Service (NHS), the second most important issue for voters in this election, either directly or indirectly, through pollution, infectious diseases, and the effects of heat. In 2022, heatwaves alone in the UK killed 4,500 people

Conversely, the mental and physical health benefits from spending time in nature-rich environments could reduce costs to the NHS by millions each year. This saving could extend to over £2 billion per year if everyone had equal access to healthy natural spaces.

Yet the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, having high levels of ecosystem degradation. 

This in turn affects the UK economy, the third most vital issue for voters. A recent analysis estimates the deterioration of the UK’s natural environment could lead to a loss of 6 per cent of GDP by 2030, through declining ecosystem services like the supply of food, water and clean air. 

For comparison, the financial crisis of 2008 took around 5 per cent off the value of the UK’s GDP. 

Accounting for nature loss in the rest of the world could increase UK GDP loss to 12 per cent by the early 2030s - with more than half of annual global GDP moderately or highly dependent on nature and its functions.

Commitments followed up by action

To address voter concerns on the cost of living, health, and the economy, the next government will need to ensure that commitments on climate change and nature loss are backed up with strong action – even if such measures present economic or political difficulties in the short term.

This means aligning with 1.5°C and Global Biodiversity Framework targets for 2030. National production and consumption must be consistent with those climate change mitigation and biodiversity targets, pursuing only policies that align with them and do not conflict with attaining climate and biodiversity goals at the global level. 

Article 2nd half

In their 2024 general election manifestos, both Labour and Conservative parties have committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century; the Liberal Democrats have pledged to do so by 2045. Labour is targeting zero-carbon electricity by 2030.

Commitments on biodiversity are less encouraging. The landmark Global Biodiversity Framework and its 23 targets for 2030 are not mentioned in either the Labour or Conservative manifesto. 

The Liberal Democrats, for their part, have committed to protect at least 30 per cent of land and sea areas.

Many voters in this election feel economically insecure. A credible strategy to address this requires clearly communicating to the public how concerns like the cost of living, health and the economy are intrinsically linked to climate change and nature loss. 

Doing so will enable the next government to expedite comprehensive policies on climate and biodiversity, reap the associated benefits, while reducing the likelihood of a political backlash. 

Steve Reed, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, recently argued ‘Without nature there is no economy, no food, no health and no society’. 

Meeting the expectations of voters, across a range of issues, will require translating these words into action.