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Britain just declared a climate emergency. What happens next?

Brexit may have polarised Britain's politics, but providing leadership on climate change could be the binding force that brings the country back together.

Chaitanya Kumar
7 May 2019
Image: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

“A week is a long time in politics”, said Harold Wilson. Throughout history there have been certain times when this saying has taken on a particular resonance. It may be the case that we are now witnessing another such moment.

The political shenanigans around Brexit have left many MPs and the general public exhausted. There are very few things that the Prime Minister should be thanked for, but the extension of the Brexit negotiations could well be one of them. Much to the surprise of political observers, the suddenly vacant airwaves have been filled with discussion on climate change.

For many of us who have struggled to get climate change any airtime on national media – particularly without the presence of someone sowing doubt on climate science in the name of ‘balanced’ debate – this level of attention is refreshing and long overdue.

The impact of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the Swedish teen sensation Greta Thunberg has been phenomenal, and has inspired a host of local authorities, the Labour Party, and now even Parliament to declare a national environment and climate emergency. Such a declaration does not mean that Parliament now supports all the demands of XR – particularly not the one that seeks net zero carbon emissions by 2025. However, the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn seems more attuned to the other two demands: ‘telling the truth’ on climate change, and organising ‘citizens assemblies’ on climate and ecological justice.

The emergency declaration is certainly the first step, but what comes next?

A green industrial revolution versus clean growth

The shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has fired the starting gun on what the next steps might be by outlining plans for ‘a green industrial revolution’. The infectious energy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S. and her agenda for a Green New Deal is also influencing Labour’s thinking. Calling it the ‘green industrial revolution’ aptly fits with British history, as it was here that the first industrial revolution took off a couple of centuries ago.

But much of the economic growth that followed was built on the back of fossil fuels, the slave trade and ecological destruction. The 21st century industrial revolution needs to understand and undo the impacts of that legacy which still plays out to this day in many different ways, while also building a future based on a cleaner and more just economy.

The Conservative Party’s views on climate change are similar, but lack any edge of radicalism. Their narrative has primarily been that of ‘clean growth’. By pointing to the fact that the country has reduced its carbon emissions by 43% since 1990 while simultaneously growing its economy by more than 75%, the clean growth narrative feels sensible. But this approach is limited in two important ways.

First, by focusing on emission reductions alone, its policy outlook is too siloed. This has led to the development of a largely stealth policy of building more renewable energy, phasing out coal and outsourcing manufacturing-based emissions to developing countries. Such a technocratic approach has proved successful in reducing emissions from the electricity sector, but has failed at communicating and securing ongoing buy-in from the public for implementing more difficult and intrusive policies in other sectors like transport and housing.

Second, the clean growth narrative is deaf to wider social policy. Tackling climate change can no longer be viewed as separate to addressing economic inequality and improving the lives of the marginalised. Failing to recognise this risks perpetuating the interlinked causes that brought us both climate change and an unequal society in the first place.

The clean growth story of the last decade is beginning to run its course. Now we need a new narrative for the Britain of the coming decade, one that doesn’t just believe climate change is the greatest wealth creating opportunity, but that also imagines an equitable and just society existing within a net zero economy. Initial noises from the Labour party on the green industrial revolution are promising, but without much detail it still remains a mere sketch on paper.

Going beyond the UK Climate Change Act

The UK Climate Change Act of 2008 was successful in an atmosphere of unique political non-partisanship. Ten years on, such a consensus still prevails, with most leading parties and their MPs willing to take more ambitious action. The recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to set a target of net zero emissions by 2050 could in fact pass through parliament relatively easily if tested this week.

But we also need to look beyond the Act and its narrow emphasis on climate mitigation and adaptation. According to the CCC, more than 60% of emission reductions will require some form of behavioural change across society. This demands a new approach to policy making that embeds climate change within wider public policy and emphasises devolution of responsibility and resources to address climate change from the bottom up. The upcoming Environment Bill offers one such avenue to tie climate change with other environmental issues like air pollution, peat land restoration and soil conservation, to name a few. Similarly, the Welsh Well-being of Future Generations Act is another route to ensure climate is given greater consideration across devolved policy.

So what practical steps need to happen next? Here are five suggestions.

1. Figure out what a green industrial revolution entails in practice

Greenpeace has put together a neat summary of what a rapid reduction of carbon emissions looks like. It includes stopping the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, retrofitting millions of homes to a higher energy standard, planting trees twice the area of Sheffield every year, tripling renewable energy by 2030 and reducing carbon emissions from heavy industry like steel and cement. Big ticket projects like the expansion of Heathrow, fracking for gas and HS2, among others, will need to pass a rigorous climate stress test.

None of these are easy, but they need to be done in a manner that is driven by legislation. The government is already falling behind on easier targets set under the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, and merely having a national target might result in some sectors and departments making up for the lack of effort in others.

2. Develop a national communications plan to facilitate bold climate action

There is only one David Attenborough, and he’s getting old. We need more ambassadors and spokespeople like him making regular appearances on the national media and fostering a rigorous discussion on climate change, and what that means for individual households across the country. Citizens’ assemblies are an imperfect yet important method of deliberative democracy for achieving widespread support for radical policies.

But such a program is far easier said than done. A fractious political climate has the potential to toxify the climate debate. The far right has a historic hostility towards climate policy, and with Brexit dominating, they have yet to come out swinging against meaningful and necessary climate action. Similarly, hard right voices in the Conservative Party such as Ian Duncan Smith and John Redwood can easily frustrate and slow down radical measures that might entail greater state intervention into the regulation of markets.

The irrefutable evidence of climate science, and the truth about who is worst impacted by extreme weather events, must consistently be placed at the centre of the debate. Otherwise we risk a superficial technocratic discussion that can run around in circles and prevent civil servants from drawing up commensurate policies.

3. Force adequate spending on climate

The Treasury has considerable power to slow down or accelerate progress on climate change. The conveniently condescending question of ‘who pays’ for the energy transition or the green industrial revolution is inevitably a red herring. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that spending 1-1.5% of national GDP every year will be required to meet its recommended targets. On the other hand, we already spend over 2% of GDP on defence and 10% on health. As climate impacts increase in severity and frequency, pressures on the health and defence budgets may also increase. Climate spending is therefore not just critical for triggering a green industrial revolution today, but also for offsetting the rising costs of dealing with extreme weather in the future.

4. Ensure that policy outcomes benefit those most impacted

Putting justice at the heart of energy transition policies isn’t easy, and needs a far better understanding of the causes of the current injustices in society. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, or ensuring all drivers use electric vehicles, may be good for the climate – but it does not address any equity issues by itself. When the richest 10% of the population contribute almost half of all carbon emissions, and reap significant material benefits from it, it raises profound questions on the need for more radical approaches to policy making.

Policies have tended to socialise costs and risks while maximising profits for a few. Recent history is littered with such policies. For example: the taxpayer funded help to buy scheme has put billions of pounds into the pockets of private house builders and their shareholders, while leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens with shoddy and unsafe homes.

Deliberative democratic processes of policy making have gained greater attention since the XR protests, and the Labour Party has expressed interest in pursuing such an approach. But such exercises need to be conducted, at the outset, with an acceptance that they will entail significant trade-offs and compromises, as is the case with all policy making.

However, assuming that we can tackle this problem without upending the current systems that encourages, directly and subliminally, a rapacious use of resources by the very few at the top, is foolhardy at best.

5. Acknowledge and implement the UK’s international responsibility

The legacy of the UK government and its industry is not as glorious as some like us to believe. UK companies are drilling for oil in 26 African countries, and the value of the shares of mining companies traded in the City of London are worth more than the entire GDP of all sub Saharan Africa. A third of the value of the FTSE is generated by extractive industries from around the globe.

The Supreme Court recently pronounced a landmark ruling that allows UK companies to be held liable in UK courts for abusing environmental or human rights in other countries. This is a positive result thanks to years of campaigning and fighting from groups that have been harmed by large, callous corporations. While calls grow to stop the UK government from allowing fracking or further drilling in the North Sea, there is little reason why UK companies should be allowed to do so in other countries, particularly if such companies carry notoriety for political collusion and running roughshod over the environment and people’s livelihoods.

Conclusion

As a powerful global economy and one of the largest historical emitters of carbon, the UK is uniquely placed to provide genuine leadership on climate change. Brexit may have poisoned and polarised our politics, but our collective desire to tackle climate change could, if one can dare to hope, be the binding force that brings this country back together – and creates a flourishing future.

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