We are on the threshold of an extraordinary decade. Before now the effects of climate and environmental breakdown were mapped in the future. But today we can see them all around us – much of England and Wales is under floodwater, fires have raged from Australia to the Amazon, and we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in which we stand to lose up to a million species.
Yet our generation can still do something about it. The climate crisis is fundamentally a crisis of politics. As such, we can address it democratically and fairly. We have the capacity, imagination, and resources to radically and justly decarbonise our economy and repair the natural world we are currently destroying. But according to the IPCC that will require “far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” for which “the next few years are probably the most important in our history”.
That's why we urgently need a Green New Deal, ingrained into all our policies – from foreign policy and international development to housing and transport – to create a joined-up approach that prevents climate and environmental breakdown, while empowering communities and creating good, green jobs across the country.
But as well as this domestic programme, we know that climate change is an unavoidably international problem. There is no way our islands can escape it alone. So our efforts at home must be matched by those abroad. In short, we must internationalise the Green New Deal.
I propose three steps to achieve this:
Getting our house in order through a domestic Green New Deal, creating consistency across policy areas and departments and cementing our position in the vanguard of international leaders on climate and environmental action;
Taking responsibility for our historic contribution to the problem and the effects of our domestic and foreign policies on other countries, putting climate justice at the heart of our response; and
Using our Presidency of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November to build an international net-zero coalition.
Moments of crisis in the UK’s modern history have changed our society. The First and Second World Wars, the twin national traumas of the 20th Century, were the furnaces in which the Labour Party forged its transformational agendas. Its electoral breakthroughs came not by putting the fundamental political questions of the day – whether that was votes for women, or the need for a national health service – on hold to deal with a specific crisis, but by responding to that crisis by sharpening our focus on political questions, and organising support under a guiding vision to tackle them.
A vision like this seeks to own the future and how to get there, offering a real alternative to people looking for hope beyond the false promises of populists and authoritarians, and reigniting a productive and emboldening optimism about the kind of country the UK can be in the decades to come.
The Green New Deal is that vision.
It is a comprehensive plan for the climate and environmental emergency that needs to be hardwired into every department at every level, from central government down to local authorities. For people across the country, a Green New Deal will look like well-paid jobs in new green industries, more power and ownership over the decisions that affect them and their community, cleaner air in their lungs, warmer, more secure homes to live in, and a sense that they can look forward to the future not with fear but with confidence.
Because responding to the climate emergency, as urgent as it is, is not an excuse to ignore the difficulties that too many already face – from low pay, to insecure work, and economic, regional and generational inequality. Nor is it an excuse to leave workers and proud communities whose industry has powered our nation to prosperity to fend for themselves in a changing world. In fact, our response to the climate crisis is the same as our response to those problems too: investment, power, good jobs, and justice.
We cannot simply proclaim this vision from Whitehall; we must use these years in opposition to build a coalition of communities, trade unions, environmentalists and businesses across our four nations to create and then deliver it. I will work with Labour administrations wherever they are in power – from councils, to city mayors and devolved governments – to design their own pathways to net zero.
Meanwhile the government’s approach is marked not only by a lack of ambition, but by the inconsistency of a Prime Minister who promised to lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent a third runway at Heathrow Airport before failing to turn up to vote against it in Parliament. In the end, the courts have had to step in to uphold our commitments under the Paris Agreement.
While committing to net zero by 2050, it has withdrawn subsidies for domestic solar and on-shore wind – a decision so obviously inconsistent with the Paris Agreement that after four years of missed opportunity for onshore wind, now the cheapest form of new power, the government has finally changed course. These decisions have led to the sharpest decline in renewable energy investment anywhere in the world.
It is unsurprising then that rather than speeding up its carbon emission cuts, the government has been slowing down: emissions fell only 2.1% in 2018, less than half the average of the preceding five years. The government’s own Committee on Climate Change concluded last summer that: “UK action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is lagging far behind what is needed, even to meet previous, less stringent, emissions targets. Over the past year, the government has delivered just one of 25 critical policies needed to get emissions reductions back on track”.
If the UK is to provide global leadership on this global problem, it must start by getting its house in order. Consistent signals are essential both to businesses wishing to invest in clean technology and divest from fossil fuels, and to other countries looking for allies in action or excuses for inaction in the fight against climate change. Boris Johnson’s dither and delay is failing our country and failing our planet.
From this domestic focus, the climate and environmental emergency requires us to think about the world beyond our borders. Just as it must define our approach at home, climate justice must guide our actions abroad. We should be clear-eyed about our historic contribution to this problem and our present capability to adapt to it – knowing that the poorest (both here and overseas) bear the least responsibility and the heaviest burden of climate breakdown.
As the sixth biggest economy on the planet, home to the world’s financial capital, what the UK does has repercussions that can reverberate around the world.
The UK currently emits about 1% of the world’s greenhouse gases, but the City of London is home to companies and financial institutions that together are responsible for about 15% of global emissions. We regulate these companies, so this provides us with an opportunity and a responsibility to change the global culture of finance and investment.
Currently there are no effective due diligence measures on money flowing through banks, investors, and financial institutions in the UK to ensure they aren’t linked to investments which cause environmental destruction.
As a centre of global finance, the UK can and must help reform the global financial system in light of the climate emergency. We should regulate private investment to make sure that money that comes through the UK isn’t contributing to environmental breakdown at home or abroad. It would show financial prudence given, as departing Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney says: “climate change will affect the value of virtually every financial asset”. Business is already alert to the need to adapt: this year BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, called on: “every company…to rethink their carbon footprints.”
At this critical juncture in our nation’s history, as we step out of the EU and into the world, the climate emergency offers an opportunity to model the kind of approach we want to take to other countries and our shared problems. We should be confident in ourselves, work with others who share our values, and pressure those who do not to change their ways.
Trade with other countries enriches us; it should also reflect our values. As we negotiate new trade deals after Brexit, we should hold the government to account, to prevent it from bargaining away environmental protections and standards and to use our market to pressure other countries to raise their ambitions for decarbonisation and environmental protection.
International development and aid
Both at home and abroad, we should protect and support those least responsible for and most affected by climate breakdown. During the necessary transition to a green economy, we must not allow ourselves to become well-adjusted to climate injustice.
Through export finance, the government has pumped £6 billion into oil and gas projects around the world over the last decade. At this year’s UK-Africa Investment Summit, 90% of the £2bn invested in energy deals went into fossil fuels. We need a different approach, and should immediately end all UK Export Finance spending on fossil fuels and fund renewables instead.
But having profited from burning fossil fuels in the past, we should go further. The UK should use our development budget and technical expertise, first to help developing countries skip our bad habits and grow their own low carbon economies on renewables, and second to provide support to climate refugees and those at climate breakdown’s frontier.
As well as the coalition of communities we must build across the UK, we need an international coalition across the globe. The UK continues to carry considerable diplomatic weight in capital cities; what we say matters. In November, we have a chance to lead as President of the 26th UN climate change conference in Glasgow.
COP26 is particularly crucial as the occasion for governments to review and improve their National Determined Contributions. Yet despite the meeting’s importance, international climate cooperation has been struggling since 2015’s breakthrough in Paris. Most nations have failed to meet even the meagre targets under the Paris Agreement, and President Trump’s plans to withdraw from it have emboldened the climate deniers and delayers.
2020 is a critical year not just because of COP26. This autumn will also see the UN Biodiversity Leaders’ Summit and meetings in Beijing and New York will set the next decade’s framework for biodiversity under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and updates to the Sustainable Development Goals.
In this pivotal year, then, the COP Presidency is a unique opportunity for the UK to show leadership on the world stage. But instead, the government is squandering it. Not only is the inconsistency of its domestic agenda damaging its credibility on this issue, it is underestimating the enormous diplomatic mission required to build the alliances necessary to succeed in November.
It has sacked its COP26 summit head and only assembled the Cabinet’s climate sub-committee for the first time this week, leaving Whitehall and the Foreign Office fragmented and confused and the government’s planning “miles off track”. The UK Government has not got the right people or the right ambition to make the most of the COP Presidency. Instead of leading the world into a new paradigm, it is shambling along on the side-lines.
Rather than kowtowing to the climate deniers, the UK should use its COP Presidency to build a net-zero coalition. Where countries are governed by deniers or corrupted by big polluters, we should be working with non-state actors – regions, cities (through initiatives like the C40 global alliance of mayors), and businesses to make progress on this issue. The UK should also grow the Powering Past Coal Alliance and expand its ambition to include all fossil fuels.
In the months left before COP26, the UK must operate in the space between unilateralism and the global consensus so absent since 2016, in the painstaking work of regional and values-based coalition-building.
Cooperation over climate change offers a model for the UK’s new relationship with the EU: standing outside, but joining forces with, another large economy with the desire and responsibility to rapidly decarbonise. The government should work with the EU to make its commitments as ambitious as possible on the understanding that the UK will at least match them and not seek to undermine its environmental standards when the Brexit transition period ends.
If progress can be made at the regional level, then that can be leveraged up to the global level. The UK should signal to both the EU and China that it will at least match the ambition of any agreement made at their crucial September summit. The US election takes place less than a week before COP26 begins. At the same time, therefore, the UK should reach out to the Democratic Nominee to sketch out the shape of US climate commitments if they win. The American left has shown leadership on the Green New Deal, we need to work with them.
In this critical year, the UK’s approach to internationalising the Green New Deal should reflect its approach to these international meetings and COP26: getting our house in order with a consistent domestic policy approach; committing to climate justice at home and abroad; and joining with others to forge a net-zero coalition.
In 1945, amidst the rubble of victory, the Labour Party won its majority with a question for voters: “whether we are going to be a great people or a small one – leader or hanger-on – a nation rich by our own efforts, or a seedy nation, living on the memories of past greatness”. 75 years later, we might ask ourselves that same question. With a Green New Deal, we can change the direction of our country and our planet and face this new decade empowered and confident. Another future is possible.
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