James Meadway, The Independent
With Labour party conference in Brighton this week climate will be at the top of the agenda. One-hundred and twenty-eight constituencies have submitted the Labour for a Green New Deal motion to Labour conference, calling for a zero carbon target of 2030. This is more than any other subject — even Brexit. There should be no doubt about the depth of feeling amongst Labour Party members, and with 85 per cent of the country concerned about climate change, the time for action is already upon us.
Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and her team have set a cracking pace on developing a policy platform for the transition to the low carbon economy, and Jeremy Corbyn has insisted the next Labour government will launch a “green industrial revolution”, delivering jobs and opportunity across the country as we shift our whole economy towards a low-carbon future. Plans to install 2 million solar panels are just the latest step along the path.
But as the hundreds of thousands striking for climate justice across the globe know full well, now is not the time to ease off on the pace of change. That our planet’s climate is changing, and changing dramatically, is now undeniable; and the scientific consensus on humanity’s contribution to this is overwhelming. This is an emergency, as parliament declared earlier this year. To be in with a shout of limiting the temperature shock, and managing the transition to a warmer, lower-carbon world, developed countries must take immediate action.
Britain has a unique responsibility here. We are the country of the original industrial revolution — after the invention of agriculture, the most important technological transformation in human history. Unlocking the potential of fossil fuels launched human society into a world of extraordinary riches and opened up vast new plains for real human progress. In a few generations, our world has been utterly changed.
But this transformation has come at a price, which is now being repaid with interest: a vast accumulation of greenhouse gases, emitted as we burned coal, oil, and gas, that is disrupting the climate system of our planet. And as the first country to take these steps into an industrial society, clearing the path for others to follow, Britain’s contribution to this disruption has been amongst the very worst.
Under political pressure, Theresa May’s departing act as prime minister was to set a target for Britain of reducing net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. By this date, the plan is to have reduced the climate damage our economy is inflicting to zero — after allowing for technologies that can remove carbon from the atmosphere. This target is consistent with Britain meeting the targets in the Paris Agreement, which are intended to keep global average temperature rises to 1.5 degrees or less by the end of this century.
But the 2050 target doesn’t take account of our historic obligations. These obligations matter. If we don’t allow for them, we are in effect saying to developing countries that whilst we enjoyed all the benefits of 200 years of burning fossil fuels, they will not be allowed to. We cannot reasonably ask other countries not to enjoy the benefits of carbon emissions that we so obviously have enjoyed; and, at least until technology improves, development in the rest of the world is going to involve rising emissions for them. We have to move faster on emissions so the rest of the world can have those opportunities.
Morally, we need a much tighter target for net zero. The obligation is clear. But in a warming world, climate diplomacy will become increasingly important. If Britain needs a new role, post-Empire and post-Brexit, setting the pace on the transition to a low-carbon economy would allow this country to claim a clear international lead.
So we have to go further. Other countries are already moving faster. Sweden has set a 2045 target. Finland has 2035. Norway has 2030 – currently the most ambitious in the world. Setting a tighter target like this will involve more dramatic changes to how anyone’s economy operates: so Norway, for example, plans to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2025. But a shift like this can create huge economic opportunities, not least for those parts of the country so badly hit by deindustrialisation over the last forty years. Labour already plans to create 200,000 jobs providing loft insulation — a simple measure that will reduce home heating bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create skilled jobs across the country.
We shouldn’t pretend this is motherhood and apple pie. Good, skilled jobs are currently tied up in high carbon industries, and trade unions are quite right to insist on seeing clear and credible commitments to create decent, skilled work in new, low-carbon sectors — and for clear commitments to existing workers. Too many communities in this country have seen the economic devastation that deindustrialisation brought to give a free pass to promises of jobs. Clear, comprehensive plans need to be drawn up, with ambitious targets for job creation — along the lines of Green Alliance’s plans for 100,000 new jobs from more efficient resource use. With a bold, ambitious promise on job creation — a million climate jobs? — suddenly every town and city in the country could see how they can be a part of the green industrial revolution. For those places starved of real investment for decades, it would be an extraordinary economic transformation.
But if we don’t set a faster pace now, we will fall short of our moral obligations. We’ll miss the opportunities for global leadership. And with other countries already starting to move, unless government here sets a rapid pace for the transition, we could miss out on the opportunity to create those new jobs in some of the communities that need them most. There’ll be debates over the transition target during conference, and a chance to set targets and ambitions that the whole labour movement can agree on. But let’s keep up the pace. We have a world to save and win.
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