Out of Proportion

Updated: May 31, 2019

How electoral systems can transform climate policy

By Owen Winter

The hub at the centre of the push for a new voting system is in an unexpected location. Make Votes Matter, the single-issue movement for Proportional Representation (PR), has its headquarters on the third floor of a grand Georgian townhouse in Clifton, a suburb of Bristol. The campaign cannot fork out for central London offices and in a digital age most of their activists work remotely. The office is let to Make Votes Matter as a donation-in-kind by generous benefactors. In the cosy living-room-turned-office at the centre of the apartment, election result maps plaster the walls, with boxes of badges, t-shirts, and leaflets stacked beneath them.

This is where Klina Jordan, a Make Votes Matter co-founder and director, spends much of her time enthusing activists, lobbying politicians, and coordinating a nationwide movement to change the voting system. So what does this have to do with the world’s climate?

Like the office, Jordan is an unexpected addition to the campaign for PR. Until recently, she vowed not to get involved in politics, convinced that it was dominated by ‘two groups of blokes shouting at each other’. It is odd, then, that she has dedicated the last three years to campaigning for electoral reform, having given up her career in sustainable business. For her, this is not a surprising career change, but an issue of necessity.

‘I’ve been a climate activist since I was very young’, Jordan says, ‘we’re destroying the planet and something needs to change, so sustainability is close to my heart. But we can’t do that without real democracy, which genuinely reflects what the majority of people want’.

It is a bold claim – that PR is key to saving the planet – but it is gaining traction among supporters of electoral reform and is backed up by political scientists.

The vast majority of democracies (over 80%) use some form of PR for their main legislature, meaning that seats in parliament match how people voted. For example, if a party wins 20% of the vote, they should expect to win 20% of MPs. However, there are some significant exceptions, including the UK, which use the constituency-based First Past the Post (FPTP) system to elect MPs.

Under FPTP each local area has a constituency representative, elected by a simple plurality, but national results are often grossly disproportionate. In the UK, the most disproportionate general election ever came in 2015, with the Conservatives winning 51% of MPs with 37% of the vote, whilst the Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP won only 1.6% of MPs between them for 24.5% of the vote.

By comparing countries’ political outcomes we can begin to paint a picture of how different voting systems produce radically different policies. This is how political scientists have uncovered the curious link between electoral systems and action on climate change.

Salomon Orellana of the University of Michigan compares ‘proportionality’ (how closely election results match how people have voted) with the percentage change in CO2 emissions per capita between 1990 and 2007 and Environmental Performance Index (EPI) score. He found that countries with a pure PR system could expect to have their percentage change in CO2 emissions decrease by 11%, towards a reduction in emissions, compared with countries with voting systems like the UK’s. He also found they could expect a 4.5% higher EPI score. Similarly, Arend Lijphart (2012) found that ‘consensus democracies’ – of which a proportional electoral system is a key feature – score on average 6% higher than ‘majoritarian’ ones.

There is clear evidence of a correlation between a more proportional electoral system and better performance on climate issues. So what is driving this relationship?

Electoral systems have a significant impact on the political parties which achieve representation and the types of government which they can form. Because PR ensures all parties have fair representation, it tends to lead to more political parties than FPTP and makes it harder for any single party to win a majority of seats. This means the governments formed are usually coalitions, rather than consisting of only one party.