Climate emergency- but will Labour act?

Climate Declaration

Basemap: Canuckguy et al / AntiCompositeNumber, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the face of Tory backsliding  and multiple challenges Tim Root outlines the case for Labour to commit to urgent investment in climate protection

In July 19,000 people, including many British tourists, needed to be evacuated from the island of Rhodes due to devastating fires. Globally July was the hottest ever month on record. Vast areas of southern Europe were destroyed by fire, with temperatures reaching 45°C in parts of Spain. In September central Greece was battered by a year’s worth of rain in twenty-four hours, floods killed forty people in Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Georgia, and several other European countries suffered severe flooding. The climate emergency clearly needs to be an urgent priority for all governments. Scientists have long warned that the higher the temperature rises, the sooner we would hit tipping points leading to accelerated heating. One example is the melting of arctic sea ice, with the ocean absorbing additional heat rather than the ice reflecting it back into space. This is partly why many prominent people have called the 2020s the decisive decade. Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres stated that if the world fails to halve emissions by 2030, “we basically condemn ourselves and our descendants to a world of ever increasing climate chaos, spiraling destruction, and deepening human misery”.

Labour- fund climate protection!

However, Labour has decided, if elected, to defer the implementation of its vital Green Prosperity Plan due to concerns that the money markets would consider the level of borrowing it had previously planned to be excessive. While maintaining the confidence of the markets in the British government is clearly very important to avoid a rise in interest rates, being unwilling to raise the money required from other sources shows that Labour is not yet giving its climate programme the top priority it needs. Another example of this is that Labour does not yet have a specific plan to cut emissions from road transport substantially and to invest sufficient money in improving public transport and making it affordable very soon. Nearly all Britons, including three-quarters of those who voted Tory in 2019, want the government to do more, or as much as now, to reach net zero. So how can Labour prioritize climate protection at the same time as taking account of the immediate economic and political pressures.

There is clearly a strong argument that Labour should maintain maximum unity in the run up to the general election. Many voters are reluctant to vote for parties which appear divided. The aim to win back voters from the Conservatives, and to avoid concern that Labour policies would significantly shake market confidence, is understandable. However, Labour also needs to consider to what extent its present course would enable it to make sufficient progress on the extremely daunting set of problems it will inherit if it wins the general election. Otherwise it would probably be seen as a one-term miserable failure. 

Investment vs. disaster and discord

Labour will need to win a second term to achieve any acceptable level of improvement. Therefore it needs clear progress on the priorities of voters, including the large and growing number who perceive climate as urgent and crucial. In addition, how would it cope with the severe and inevitable level of party disunity and public opposition if it stuck to its current severely limited ambitions, having removed several commitments many people and organisations considered vital? The various strands of the party may be patient at progress on their particular priorities being slow provided they saw that other priorities are being addressed effectively. However, if they do not perceive that to be the case, conflicts will arise, including most critically strikes. Unite is diverting money it might otherwise have donated to Labour to launch campaigns in many red wall seats, pushing Labour to adopt some of the union’s priorities.

Strike action which was not brief, or went beyond one workforce, could severely harm the public’s perception of a Labour government, partly as it would be seen to have failed to keep services running.  In addition, significant strike action would heighten people’s focus on the close links between Labour and the unions, contributing to a perception that Labour is biased, or at least soft, toward the unions, rather than being at the service of the country as a whole. 

The most prominent of the problems a Labour government would face is the NHS. The limited additional sources of revenue Labour has announced, the largest of which is the estimated £3.2 billion from ending non-dom tax status, are much less than the current NHS staff costs of £71.5 billion p.a. Therefore reaching pay settlements and improving workers’ conditions to stem the loss of medical staff either abroad, to the private sector, or to early retirement, will probably require additional sources of income. To achieve even halfway decent outcomes a Labour government would need substantial additional amounts of money for many other purposes. These include the climate emergency, with retraining and compensation for workers in fossil fuel industries needing to be wound down, stemming the exodus of teachers from the profession and recruiting trainee teachers, and repairing the many problematic school and other public sector buildings

Well-targeted taxes

A Labour government could confidently raise certain taxes to which few people would feel able to object due to the harm which the activities in question cause. For instance raising taxes on alcohol and tobacco by just 15% would bring in over £3 billion per year. An increase of 30 per cent on gambling taxes would bring in £1 billion. As well as raising valuable revenue, these increases would improve the nation’s health, helping prevent many avoidable cancers, 184,000 of which are expected to be diagnosed in 2023. Labour could convince many people of the need for limited tax rises by pointing to the Tories’ multiple failures, and explaining how the revenue would be invested to solve costly problems. They could coin a phrase such as “Tories’ wasteful blunders, Labour’s wise solutions”. Labour should also note that a very high proportion of people are in favour of a wealth tax, including nearly three-quarters of those who voted Conservative in 2019. Conservative commentator Matthew D’Ancona recently pointed out that a Labour government would be wise to consider a wealth tax to address voters’ soaring expectations of transformative change, and that in 2012 George Osborne proposed enacting a mansion tax. Over three-quarters of people support a windfall tax on banks’ and energy companies’ excess profits. Labour should also reduce the huge tax savings which many wealthy people gain with their pension contributions.

To gain public confidence in its ability to tax wisely, Labour will need to maximize party unity by prioritizing the concerns which party members share with the majority of the population. The climate emergency is the most important of these by far. This July nearly two-thirds of Britons considered “climate change and the environment” to be an important issue, not far behind the three immediate problem areas: health, economy and inflation. Labour’s policy document states that climate breakdown “must be the defining mission of the next decade”, and the party’s Industrial Strategy describes it as “rapidly accelerating”. 

The delayed Green Prosperity Plan will not cut our emissions fast enough. The June 2023 progress report of statutory advisers the Climate Change Committee states that “the rate of emissions reduction outside the power sector must almost quadruple”. Ahead of the general election Labour needs to calculate what measures it would implement to achieve the committee’s recommendations. These include a cut by 2035 of 72 per cent in surface transport greenhouse gas emissions, “the largest source of UK emissions”. These reductions cannot be postponed until electric vehicles have replaced petrol/ diesel vehicles, partly because many of the latter would remain on the roads long after the 2030 deadline (which Labour has committed to restore)  for selling new petrol/diesel vehicles. In addition it is extremely likely that we will not have enough renewable electricity to power all the electric vehicles, and the electric heating systems which we need to replace gas as soon as possible. Electric vehicles running on electricity generated by gas would still be causing climate-damaging emissions. 

Winning support for climate protection measures

A Labour government could win support for a revenue-neutral climate protection package involving home insulation for poorer households, and subsidies to reduce Britain’s exceptionally expensive public transport fares. This could be funded by the well-supported frequent flyer levy, and a per mile road charging scheme replacing fuel duty, to discourage excessive driving. In order to win public support, the scheme for non-business driving should have an annual allowance of a limited number of free miles, with the per mile charge increasing for miles driven above the annual average. This would ensure that a high proportion of the cost was borne by the high-income drivers who drive more miles on average, while protecting low-income drivers, who drive less than average. Labour needs to adopt a scheme of this nature very soon, because the government revenue from fuel duty is set to reduce substantially as electric vehicles steadily replace petrol/diesel vehicles.

By cutting vehicle mileage this would also reduce air pollution, which causes considerable illness and premature death. It would also reduce congestion, which is estimated to cost £59 billion per year. Raising revenue to cut fares is vital at a time of high inflation, with food price rises of 15 per cent in the year up to July hitting poorer people particularly savagely. In addition, access to public transport has “one of the strongest correlations with support for climate policy”.

The government could further boost public willingness to accept decarbonization policies by cutting direct emissions from its own activity. While these cuts would be small in absolute terms, they would show that the government truly believes that climate is an emergency, whilst also setting a good example. Examples could be to turn down the thermostat in the Houses of Parliament, enable government staff to work from home as much as possible, and restrict the numbers of flights for which both government officials and MPs could claim expenses. While MPs often fly abroad on fact finding missions which are mostly of value, it is likely that the number of these flights could be reduced, and that the learning obtained from such visits could in many respects be replicated through the use of online platforms.

In order to get political parties to prioritise climate, public discussion needs to move beyond severe weather disasters to highlight solutions to the emergency. A large twenty nation survey shows that it is vital to propose and explain climate policies which meet three criteria:

-they do not make most people worse off;

-they ensure that the situation of low-income households is protected;

-the policies convince people that they will actually reduce emissions.

This survey compared the responses of those who just completed a questionnaire, with those of others who were shown two short videos before completing the questionnaire. The videos were very effective in increasing the level of support for the main climate policies advocated. Campaign organisations need to learn from this and create short TV and social media ads advocating for climate policies, in order to put pressure on parties to commit to specific levels of emissions reduction. Such ads would be most effective if they were voiced by well-known people, whose participation would significantly boost both the ad’s credibility, and the audience interest. Former UN climate chief and dedicated activist Christiana Figueres recently stated that campaigners need to get over their previous distaste for marketing techniques and recognize that they are vital. 

It is well known that political messages need to be repeated in order to register with a wide range of people. Once people had seen a well-designed climate campaign ad on a few occasions they would appreciate that there is a viable strategy for combatting climate breakdown, rather than merely perceiving it as an intractable problem from which they would prefer to avert their attention. Creating TV ads would be costly, but as with other charity ads they would have the potential to bring in sufficient donations to cover the cost.

The world needs healthy forests

Keir Starmer needs to note the remarkable vote by 58 per cent of the citizens of Ecuador to cease the development of all new oil wells in the Yasuní national park, despite the loss of revenue this will entail for the low-income country. If citizens of developing countries are ready to make sacrifices to protect tropical forests, it is all the more vital that the governments of wealthy nations help with this process, as Brazil’s leader Lula has called for. If tropical forests decline in size they will absorb much less carbon dioxide, temperatures will rise relentlessly, further large areas will be destroyed by fire, and currently undiscovered plants which could have valuable uses will never be found.

Lula’s government has made a good start in protecting the Brazilian Amazon, but it would be naive to assume that the world’s forests will be protected without western funding. A Labour government should build on David Lammy’s recent visit to Brazil and urgently discuss this with other nations, so that large amounts are pledged both to set up systems to prevent deforestation, and to reward forest nations regularly when evidence shows that forests have been protected.

Campaigners must aim to make climate a key issue in the next election. Please join them! A Labour government must know that it would face widespread outrage if it fails to make climate an urgent priority. The amount of money needed is manageable for a government. It is possible to convince the British people that failing to invest sufficiently in climate protection would entail unforgivable negligence, particularly to our children and grandchildren.

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