Following Tory environmental vandalism - can Labour do better?
The Big One - Extinction Rebellion protest in April 2023 © Kristian Buus / Greenpeace
The reality of the climate emergency has dominated headlines this summer. India sweltered under heat waves that pushed hospitals beyond capacity, wildfires raged through Hawaii's Maui island, claiming the lives of over 110 people, and temperature records were shattered in numerous countries.
While floods, fires and extreme weather brutally killed and injured people, it's clear that the UK government has failed to connect the dots between these catastrophic events, greenhouse gas emissions, and the alarming loss of biodiversity. Their commitment to expanding new oil and gas drilling, coupled with the dismantling of environmental regulations that have safeguarded our rivers for decades, raises questions about their actively destructive operations.
The Tories stand accused of failing to act on the climate emergency whilst shredding environmental protections
Recent YouGov polling underscores the public's concern, with 67% of the UK population ranking climate change as one of the most pressing issues facing the nation, just below the economy and the NHS and above housing. With a general election looming on the horizon, there lies a distinct opportunity for the Labour Party to reshape the discourse on climate and the environment to its advantage. However, Labour's current policies appear to struggle in comprehending the core issues surrounding climate action, appearing mired in internal narratives rather than seizing the mantle of environmental leadership and filling the void left by the Conservative government.
Assuming no snap elections, the next government will face an immense responsibility: charting a course toward net-zero emissions, grounded in scientific consensus, and aiming to halve global emissions by 2030. This upcoming election could potentially be one of the most pivotal moments in our history, as it will determine our ability to effectively combat the dire consequences of climate change.
Time is of the essence, and any delay in addressing the climate crisis is simply not an option. However, Labour recently made an announcement that raised concerns—scaling back one of its flagship climate investment plans from £28 billion a year until 2030 and shifting the bulk of this investment to the latter half of the Parliamentary term. Initially, this funding figure had already faced criticism for falling short of the investment required to make a substantial dent in emissions. It notably lagged behind the Green Party's ambitious pledge of £100 billion annually for a decade.
What's equally concerning is the lack of recognition in this announcement regarding the broader significance of green investment. It's not just about reducing emissions; it's also about job creation and how achieving net-zero emissions can address the pressing cost of living crisis. Labour's statements, particularly those by Rachel Reeves, often emphasise using climate investment solely to bolster economic growth.
The Green New Deal can be likened to the construction of a hospital: it carries an initial cost, but the enduring benefits will yield returns for generations to come. Just as we wouldn't expect the Labour Party to backtrack on their commitments to the NHS, the question arises – why does an investment in crucial green infrastructure, seem like an afterthought in Keir Starmer's economic agenda?
This glaring contrast exposes a significant gap in Labour's comprehension of climate and nature. It's imperative to recognise that the environment and the economy are inextricably linked, much like the people and the workers. Prioritising the economy in isolation overlooks the fact that the environment plays an instrumental role in its creation.
This is precisely where leadership falls short. While Labour may echo the outdated mantra of 'It's the economy, stupid,' they are overlooking the essential policies and narratives that can truly drive progressive change. What's needed is an economy that seamlessly integrates workers' rights, human rights, and environmental stewardship.
The Green New Deal offers the sole viable path to ensuring affordable energy prices while simultaneously creating resilient job opportunities for both skilled and unskilled workers. It presents a vision that resonates with the public, acknowledging the complex challenges of the current cost of living crisis. However, Starmer seems to be tailoring his message to what he believes voters want to hear, rather than demonstrating clear, identifiable leadership that genuinely benefits both people and our planet. Without such a visionary approach, Starmer risks heading towards defeat in the upcoming general election by portraying his party as a diluted version of the Tories.
On top of this, integration of the Green New Deal's investment must also include a robust commitment to public ownership. Keir Starmer's 2020 endorsement of 'common ownership of rail, mail, energy, and water' has disappeared from the agenda, as he claims he intends to prioritise growth over nationalisation. However, this stance is disconnected from the concerns of the general public who are experiencing the scandalous effects of privatisation on essential services, including polluted rivers and exorbitant rail fares.
The Uxbridge by-election starkly highlights Starmer's inability to tackle pressure on environmental policy, even when it originates from the right wing. In failing to establish a compelling narrative emphasising the necessity of Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) from both a health and environmental standpoint, he missed an opportunity to display strong leadership that would provide the narrative about the importance of ULEZ. A narrative that’s rooted in genuine progress based on evidence and date - not based on reactionary viewpoints.
Instead of adopting a firm and unwavering position, he seemed to backtrack on his support for this pivotal environmental initiative, which had originally been introduced by his own party. The 2019 launch of ULEZ serves as a testament to the fact that such measures may face initial resistance from certain voters but, with time, can garner broad support while simultaneously contributing to a significant reduction in lung and heart conditions.
This raises a critical question: If Starmer is willing to backtrack on a crucial environmental initiative, one that was championed by a member of his own party, can he be trusted to address more significant challenges? His wavering stance on this environmental issue calls into question his commitment to tackling pressing problems that require strong leadership.
As the Labour Party conference approaches (8th to 11th October), Keir Starmer stands at a pivotal juncture, offering him a clear opportunity to demonstrate his potential as a climate leader. This leadership should go beyond maintaining the status quo established by the current government. Instead, it should embody a vision of a brighter future—one that addresses issues of social injustice while staying committed to keeping global warming below 1.5º Celsius.
Activists protest private jets at Geneva airport - photo credit - Greenpeace
A genuine climate leader champions a wealth tax targeting the top 1% to rectify the escalating inequality in the UK. They would end the luxury emissions of private jets and introduce a frequent flyer levy. This revenue can then be strategically reinvested for the benefit of all citizens, with the potential to generate up to £70 billion for securing our shared future. On the surface, aren’t these the principles that the Labour Party is rooted in? This revenue can be strategically invested in affordable clean energy solutions, green job creation for a sustainable future, the development of accessible and sustainable public transportation infrastructure, the preservation and enhancement of biodiversity, and an equal emphasis on biodiversity conservation alongside climate action.
Additionally, a climate leader should actively engage and collaborate with environmental activists and organisations, recognizing their invaluable role in driving meaningful change. Keir Starmer has the platform to become the advocate for a more sustainable, equitable, and environmentally-conscious future. The upcoming autumn conference could serve as his final chance to demonstrate his commitment and leadership in this critical endeavour.