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Labour can win Britain's first climate election – but winning must just be the beginning

The party's plan for tackling the climate crisis is unmatched in its scale and ambition. But there is no room for complacency.

Mark Button
31 October 2019
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Rebecca Long Bailey during a visit to Salford, as they highlight the party's plans to tackle climate change and fuel poverty.
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Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Last week, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Rebecca Long-Bailey launched Labour’s ‘Thirty by 2030’ report – a detailed, comprehensive fast-track plan to decarbonise the UK’s electricity and heating systems by the 2030s.

Labour deserves major recognition for this report. While the UK’s other major political parties remain committed to piecemeal climate platforms which risk potentially disastrous consequences and do nothing to confront the underlying class dynamics driving climate breakdown, in this report Labour set out an ambitious, credible and appealing vision for rapid decarbonisation that is centered on justice for workers.

Taken together, the report’s 30 recommendations, which include insulation upgrades for every home in the UK, the installation of eight million heat pumps and the construction of enough new solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches, represent climate policy formulated at a scale rarely – if ever – seen in the UK. As we enter a general election campaign, this ambition and level of detail on climate is unmatched.

Crucially, the proposals are fundamentally motivated by the need to secure a just transition for workers and to tackle inequality, placing the labour movement and economic justice at the heart of climate action. For example, the report’s proposal to radically increase energy efficiency by upgrading almost 27 million homes and buildings will not only have a significant impact on both our domestic and consumption emissions, but will also help to end fuel poverty in the UK. Only Labour can unite climate and class politics in this way.

Labour has clearly taken seriously the mandate it received at its conference in September, where 128 CLPs and several trade unions, including Unite and Unison, supported Labour for a Green New Deal’s motion calling for an unprecedented, state-led programme of investment and legislation based on public ownership and democratic control, and aimed at decarbonising and transforming the UK economy.

This is not to say the ‘Thirty by 2030‘ report represents the full elaboration of hopes for a socialist Green New Deal. The scale of the climate crisis is such that, even though Labour’s proposals far outstrip those of any other political party in terms of scale and ambition, they represent just one part of the action needed to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis.

In fact, the report’s proposals – though aspirational and groundbreaking in its focus on securing a just transition for workers – would by themselves only directly reduce UK domestic emissions by a quarter, and would directly reduce consumption emissions (i.e. those challenging emissions produced by domestic consumption and imports) by just 16%.

It is therefore important that these proposals are not simply viewed in isolation. Instead they should be seen as part of a wider plan to decarbonise all areas of our society, from agriculture to housing to public spaces and transport, as well as an indicator of the kind of vision and creativity that Labour can bring to bear on this task.

Additionally, there are some ways in which Labour’s proposals for the energy system might go further. For example, while the report calls for significant expansion of onshore wind and solar PV, the assumed buildout rates for these technologies are benchmarked against business-as-usual conditions. This relatively conservative assumption is commonplace in energy forecasting; however, as demonstrated by the International Energy Agency’s consistent under-estimation of renewables growth year on year, a conservative estimate is not necessarily an accurate one. Indeed, growth in renewable energy globally – alongside plummeting prices – continues to blow past mainstream predictions.

Importantly, these trends have been primarily driven by state-led investment. Rather than assuming business as usual as its baseline, Labour should embrace the tremendous ability of the state to drive the scale and pace of growth in renewable energy. More rapid and widespread buildout of onshore wind and solar PV would in turn drive similar changes in the speed and scale of decarbonisation in transport, industry and heating.

Nevertheless, the launch of this report, particularly in the context of a general election, is a cause for celebration. It represents a Labour party that has heard the calls for radical climate action, and is meeting these calls with bold policies for decarbonising our economy.

It is up to us to keep demanding radical ambition at this critical time, to use our voices to create the political space for Labour to push further, and to transform our economy into one that works for people and planet.

But as December 12th approaches, we must remember that the opportunity to push further and to create the scale of change we need to tackle the climate crisis can only be found in a Labour government.

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