Labour has started to show it takes climate change seriously – but can it bring the working class along with it?

The party’s goal must be to reduce emissions at a rapid rate so as to allow breathing room for the development of the global south, all the while providing green jobs and prosperity for those who have been left behind in the UK

James Meadway
Friday 17 May 2019 08:20 BST
Mothers rise up protest for action on climate change

The declaration by parliament of a climate emergency, the first by any legislature globally, clears the path to make Britain the leading country globally for action on climate change. It is a tribute to the climate strikers and the activists of Extinction Rebellion who, in just a few weeks, have cut through the fog of Brexit to place the environment and climate change centre-stage – exactly where they should be.

There should be no doubt at all that, come the next election, our changing climate will be an issue on the doorstep for every party. Labour pushed for the declaration, and must now seize the opportunity to build on it.

The party’s announcements today are the first steps in that process. In government Labour plans to bring the national grid back into public ownership, thus allowing the mass roll-out of renewable energy, as well as a plan to fit solar panels to 1.75m low-income homes and social housing across the country.

This is a good start. But there are two challenges – so far unmentioned – that the party and the labour movement will have to confront if it is to meet the full scale of the crisis head-on.

The first is that the Committee on Climate Change’s methodical report has set a target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, including emissions from international shipping and aviation. This means that Britain would have to have ended its contribution to climate change no later than mid-century. They argue this is in line with our commitments under the Paris Agreement, which mandated countries to reduce their emissions sufficiently to keep global average temperature rises to 1.5 degrees by the end of this century.

But developed countries like Britain, with their legacy of historic greenhouse gas emissions, will need to work harder if they are to allow space for continued development in the rest of the world – which is, for now, likely to involve further emissions increases for a time. Otherwise we risk doing something like pulling up the ladder behind us.

Britain got away with burning vast quantities of coal and exploiting other carbon-heavy fuels, enough to drive the industrial revolution and make this country one of the richest in the world. Morally, we can’t reasonably deprive other countries of the opportunity to develop that we have enjoyed.

But also let’s not kid ourselves about this: in a world where economic power is shifting away from the older developed countries, it would be foolish and damaging to pretend that we could even try to deprive them.

Hard-nosed considerations of national interest in a warming world means Britain needs to reach further and go faster than the Paris target if it is to claim any sort of international leadership. Labour needs to set out a bold plan to do so.

The second challenge is that posed by Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB union, in an important recent opinion piece. GMB represents a large number of workers in the existing energy industries. Tim is very clear, however, that he and the GMB recognise the need to combat climate change, and that he welcomes the call for a green new deal.

GMB members have already suffered from this government’s failure to support renewable technologies. But Tim says energy workers aren’t currently going to trust politicians promising “pie in the sky” on a green transition when they’re so obviously failing to deliver right now.

Those workers are absolutely right to raise these concerns. Decarbonisation will be a big economic shift. But anyone from a so-called “post-industrial” part of the UK will know what can happen when a big economic change occurs, and good, solid jobs are lost in industries and sectors that once looked like they’d be there forever.

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Great swathes of the country are still suffering the impact of the mass destruction of manufacturing jobs – to be replaced, if they were replaced, too often by lower-paid, insecure work. A decade of austerity spending cuts has inflicted a further battering on local economies.

This sets the bar we must clear. We have to stretch beyond current government policy – but we also need clear plans to get there. National targets need to turn into specific, local actions. We need to set out measurable, credible promises of jobs – and also tell a bigger story about how those parts of the country that lost out in deindustrialisation can become the winners this time round.

Whether it is small-scale – like microhydro generation in the Welsh Valleys – or big canvas – like the proposed tidal barrages – we can tell a positive story for every part of the country. We need to show clearly how the costs of the transition will be borne not by workers, their families, and communities, but by those at the very top who are most responsible for emissions. Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s “green industrial revolution” will need to be a revolution from below, built from the ground up.

For example, a faster transition to net zero carbon is technically feasible, as a detailed briefing by Friends of the Earth shows. This faster pace will require a major shift to low carbon all-electric vehicles, with the Committee on Climate Change recommending all-electric by 2035, and 2030 as a preference. This is quicker than the current government’s own target date of 2040, and quicker than the industry itself would want. Intervention by government will be needed, not least to invest in new electric infrastructure.

But it’s not just industry that needs to switch, or big national investment programmes. Car usage will have to change. That won’t happen without consent. Labour introduced a “cash for clunkers” programme in the depths of the 2009 recession, offering cash incentives for car owners to switch to newer vehicles, and helped the industry back on its feet to record production. It’s a dramatic example of how targeted government intervention can work.

So as a part of its new industrial strategy, could the next Labour government make a similar offer to drivers of older vehicles – perhaps targeting first those places most battered by austerity, and who suffer most from air pollution? Could it say (for example) to Uber drivers or to the Hermes couriers that GMB is now successfully representing that we will help you make the switch to all-electric?

And can it work with unions and industry to make that happen? As shadow treasury minister Clive Lewis has stated, we will need to make dramatic changes to our lifestyle to protect our planet – but these changes will have to be taken through a process that is consultative rather than imposed.

However, for these policies to begin to take shape at the top of the party, the pressure will need to come from below. Which is why Momentum’s announcement today that it is prepared to push the Labour leadership left on policy is welcome news in the fight against climate change.

Newly set-up organisation Labour for a Green New Deal, and Momentum’s new incarnation, are the seeds of “Corbynism 2.0”. Labour for a Green New Deal will be pushing for the party to build on its current policy, inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s green new deal in the US. If passed at conference, their motion will put the party at the cutting edge of the global fight for climate and economic justice. We know time is short, but the opportunity is open for Labour to seize the leadership.

James Meadway is shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s former economic advisor

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