Tackling climate change requires a just transition to a low carbon economy

When he was environment secretary, David Miliband asserted that only Labour could tackle climate change. He argued that this was because only Labour recognised the need to intervene in markets. The Conservatives’ instincts, he said, would always pre-dispose them to solutions that stopped short of the measures necessary to set our economy on the route towards a low carbon, sustainable future. This, of course, was after the Stern report which had said that climate change was the greatest market failure the world had ever seen.

Keith Sonnet, UNISON Deputy General Secretary, reports from the UN climate talks in Cancun

When he was environment secretary, David Miliband asserted that only Labour could tackle climate change. He argued that this was because only Labour recognised the need to intervene in markets. The Conservatives’ instincts, he said, would always pre-dispose them to solutions that stopped short of the measures necessary to set our economy on the route towards a low carbon, sustainable future. This, of course, was after the Stern report which had said that climate change was the greatest market failure the world had ever seen.

This is still a powerful argument which, when applied to the bigger international left–right picture, helps us to understand what’s going wrong at COP16 in Cancun. An international trade union delegation in Cancun is lobbying negotiators from world governments for the shared vision statement that opens the draft agreement to embody just such an interventionist approach.

We have argued, with some success, that tackling climate change requires a just transition to a low carbon economy. In its broadest sense, this means managing change to a new economic system. We must address market failure and buttress hard emissions targets with active industrial policies.

Decent work, training the workforce for the low carbon economy and stakeholder dialogue are essential to success. One concrete measure that would gives force to the concept, would be an agreement on climate finance. This would enable developing countries to finance a sustainable, less polluting development path than the one taken by the developed world.

The concepts of just transition and decent work were, over the course of previous negotiations, inserted in the draft negotiating text. Progressive governments from Argentina and the USA, after Obama’s election, stuck their necks out and made the case. Ed Miliband, as Energy and Climate Change minister in Copenhagen last year backed us too.

Now, however, we find these commitments are on the cutting room floor. Negotiators are apparently paring back the shared vision to a bare minimum, focusing exclusively on the what and leaving out the how. You can see where the secretariat of the UNFCCC might be coming from.

Desperate for some progress and mindful of how the Copenhagen Accord pulled the rug out from under them last year. However, there is also a fear at the talks that the political climate is changing; that the right and the market fundamentalists are carrying the arguments. They view trade union and NGO perspectives on intervention and climate justice as getting in the way.

Richard Branson’s recent argument for business leadership is indicative. Of course business has a role, but we say people and their representatives should set the terms under which they operate.

So, where do we go from here? There are no easy solutions, but there is a very real truth in the proposition that the left do have all the right instincts on climate change. When David Cameron says, as he did on the eve of the Cancun talks, that to tackle climate change we need to mobilise the profit motive, my heart sinks. Where is the profit in bringing low carbon electricity to subsistence farmers or building flood defences in Bangladesh?

Just transition to a low carbon economy makes perfect sense. It needs to be developed and put at the centre of a radical new economic and industrial policy that should come out of Labour’s policy review. The burgeoning cross fertilisation between environmental campaign groups and trade unions, needs to be mobilised behind this cause.

We could build a strong movement that recognises the need for a common front for a new social and environmental contract, and the importance of collectivism and solidarity in achieving it. And, in turn, this needs to shape a new active global climate diplomacy. We need to lift our sights on this issue. Despite the gloom in Cancun, history is on our side. Airline bosses haven’t got the answers.

Lets not forget, climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.

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