“Most inspiring of all is simply that Labour has listened to the clarion call that we are in a climate emergency.”Mark Watts
I spent my Sunday afternoon re-reading Labour’s election manifesto. Not because I have to – it’s been quite a few years now since I worked on an election campaign – but because it’s just bloody brilliant. Most inspiring of all is simply that Labour has listened to the clarion call that we are in a climate emergency, looked seriously at the science-based targets that need to be achieved to avert climate breakdown, and then actually committed to a set of actions that will deliver them, with most of the toughest stuff pledged to happen in the first term of a Labour government, not vaguely promised for the long-distant future.
That shouldn’t be extraordinary, but it is. I might be accused of bias, but as George Monbiot wrote recently: “I’ve never been a member of any political party, and have no party loyalties. I know the Labour Party is imperfect. But what I see is a group of people genuinely seeking to solve our massive problems – environmental, political, economic, medical and social – rather than appeasing press barons and queueing at the notorious revolving door between politics and money-making.”
Moreover, Labour has clearly also thought through how the extraordinary scale of (fully-costed) investment it plans to slash emissions can also be used to radically reduce inequality, ensuring that everyone is better off but that the most vulnerable benefit first. This is a programme not only to protect the future, but to build a much fairer society right now, and it epitomises what a Green New Deal looks like when translated into a programme of action for government.
Labour uses the more clunky nomenclature of ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, but no matter – what is in a name when a radical green agenda is the first chapter of the manifesto and provides the philosophical under-pinning of Labour’s whole programme, rather than being relegated to the back where we are used to seeing parties’ environmental promises hidden away.
“The climate crisis”, it states, “ties us all into a common fate”. While the Conservatives “wasted a decade serving the interests of big polluters”, Labour will “treat the destruction of our planet..[as] a question of justice. We will make sure that the costs of the green transition fall fairly and are mostly borne by the wealthy and those most responsible for the problem.”
This includes a windfall tax of £11bn on oil and gas companies, which would create a ‘Just Transition Fund’ to ensure those working in polluting sectors have as good or better jobs in the green economy.
The manifesto then sets out a series of headline targets including to:
- Achhieve “the substantial majority of our emission reductions by 2030“, setting out a net-zero pathway that is far faster than the Lib Dems’ target year of 2045, and the Tories’ 2050. The Green Party has pledged to definitively hit net zero by 2030, although environmental group, Friends of the Earth, ranked Labour’s manifesto as more ambitious overall, giving Labour a score of 33 out of 45, compared with 31 for the Greens, and just 5.5 for the Conservatives.
- “Upgrade almost all of the UK’s 27 million homes to the highest energy-efficiency standards” by 2030, going all-in on the sector from where a huge chunk of Britain’s emissions emanate.
- Create a Green Transformation Fund with £250bn of initial government funding, alongside setting up a separate £250bn National Investment Bank mandated “to lend in line with our mission to decarbonise our economy”. The Treasury’s rules will be re-written “to guarantee that every penny spent is compatible with our climate and environmental targets“.
Overall, Labour calculates that its programme will create 1 million new green jobs. The housing retrofit programme alone will save the average household £417 per year through lower energy bills, with Labour committing to take the energy supply arms of the ‘big six’ energy companies back into public ownership to ensure they won’t be able to hike prices. Five hundred and sixty thousand cases of asthma will be averted as damp and cold is finally banished from Britain’s homes.
Most of the manifesto’s energy policies are based on the excellent work done by a group of energy industry experts who responded to the Labour leadership’s challenge to calculate how Britain could get to net zero carbon by 2030. Their ‘Thirty recommendations by 2030‘ report recommends constructing 7,000 new offshore and 2,000 new onshore wind turbines, along with “enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches” – tripling current capacity. Together, it will mean that 90% of Britain’s electricity is provided from renewable resources by 2030. Fifty per cent of heating will also be low-carbon, a twelve-fold increase within a decade, as 8 million heat pumps replace gas boilers in all new homes and many existing ones.
Such has been the success of the climate movement in changing the public discourse in the last year from vague concern about “global warming”, to widespread determination to avert a “climate emergency”, that political opponents have found little space to attack the outcomes Labour wants to achieve. Although it was notable that the Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, reverted to the trope of talking about “more realistic” targets when defending the extra 15 years her party plans to take to decarbonise.
Criticism of Labour’s climate policies have, instead, focused on the massive programme of public investment the party is pledging to deliver them. But if we are really going to treat climate breakdown as an emergency – which we must – then it is going to take a government willing to invest massively and regulate decisively to virtually eliminate carbon emissions in a decade. An entrepreneurial government can invest to shift markets and use public funds to crowd in private finance, which at present is still flowing liberally into new coal, gas and oil extraction.
In any case, with interest rates at near zero, now is exactly the right time to borrow to invest in upgrading Britain’s neglected infrastructure. The long-term benefits of contributing to avoiding run-away climate breakdown are obviously incalculable. But even the immediate economic benefits will be huge. The team behind the ‘Thirty by 2030’ report calculate that the energy programme Labour has adopted will deliver an £800bn net benefit to Britain’s economy by 2030, and that for every £1 the government invests it will receive £2 back in increased tax revenue.
As former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, David Blanchflower, and 162 other economists put it in a letter to the Financial Times: “The UK economy needs reform. For too long it has prioritised consumption over investment, short term financial returns over long term innovation, rising asset values over rising wages, and deficit reduction over the quality of public services..The Labour Party has not only understood the deep problems we face, but has devised serious proposals for dealing with them.”
The other criticism of Labour has been about its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for not fitting the identikit of what the billionaire media tell us a leader is supposed to look like. But to quote George Monbiot again, “Corbyn has got that absolutely crucial element in politics, which is empathy. He cares about other people, and that is really radical..If Corbyn wins, we as a nation win.”
Naomi Klein makes a similar point, also reminding us of the choice at the ballot box: “The world isn’t just getting hotter, it’s getting nastier and we have these figures – the Trumps and the Johnsons and the Bolsanaro’s who are so good at turning people against each other…What gives me hope about a Labour government is that it can provide a real alternative to that politics of division, to bring people together in a common mission.
All in all, Labour’s environmental policies are inspiring stuff for anyone who cares about stopping climate breakdown, ie bequeathing a world fit to live in to our children. Will it matter? Recent polls suggest that voters now rank environmental concerns as more important in determining their vote than managing the economy, crime, taxation, and immigration. With polls narrowing as election day looms, those who cast their vote in favour of taking the climate emergency seriously could yet make a difference.
- Mark Watts is a climate activist and former Mayoral advisor on the environment.