Kerry McCarthy Labour MP for Bristol East
Labour needs a plan to save the environment — and fast
Wednesday February 05 2020, 12.01am, The Times
The months prior to the election were dominated by two huge political issues: Brexit, of course, but also the environment. Extinction Rebellion and the Greta Thunberg-inspired school climate strikers led bulletins, parliament declared a climate emergency, and millions tuned in to watch the first ever televised environmental hustings. But ultimately, it wasn’t the climate election it had promised to be.
A Conservative majority of 80 should terrify us all. The early signs — such as the sacking of Claire Perry O’Neill as president of COP26, and her remark that there hadn’t been one climate cabinet subcommittee meeting since they’d formed — are pretty chilling. In essence, their only action on climate change has been to strip away oversight and independence, and bring it under the purview of the Downing Street machine.
For Labour’s new leader, the question is: what can we do? Achieving “net zero” by the 2030s would’ve been difficult enough for us in government; from Opposition it seems nigh-on impossible.
But too much is at stake for us not to try. We can take the last manifesto as a good starting point. It had a strong message, with policies on the economy and energy, transport, the environment and animal welfare all framed as “the green industrial revolution”. Friends of the Earth judged us to have the best green platform of all the parties.
In truth, the top-down technocratic approach outlined in the manifesto was effectively an industrial policy with a green sheen. A blueprint for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in government, but in Opposition we need something new in tone, content and approach.
The next Labour leader will, given the Tories’ failings, have to lead the battle for meaningful, real action on climate change. It’s not a buzzword; it’s not a policy position. It’s a social, environmental and moral imperative. They will need a much broader approach to engagement, conveying a sense of the scale and urgency of the crisis, and a vision of what a “net zero” world will look like, from the global to the local.
We need to bring together the power of the state, the market and the people. We should look at what Labour is doing in local government: setting up energy companies, building zero-carbon homes, encouraging the switch to cleaner vehicles, and much more.
Above all, we need to talk about people, and not patronisingly and passively, seeing them only as workers, energy bill-payers, or consumers. We need to treat them as individuals who can be the change we want to see. We won’t achieve “net zero” without significant behaviour change, moving away from over-consumption and unsustainable practices.
We also need to consider whether existing supranational institutions and established ways of working together can really deliver the seismic change we need; the faltering COP process suggests not.
The challenge is immense, the window we have to rise to it is small and closing fast. That’s why Labour needs a leader steeled for the fight, and ready to start from first principles. Make no mistake, COP26 is our last chance to act. Labour needs to show the leadership that has been conspicuously lacking from the government so far