Labour’s green policies are warming up, but its economics lag behind

If action on climate change is urgent, why is it hard for politicians to spend a bit of money on it?

If action on climate change is urgent, why is it hard for politicians to spend a bit of money on it?

This year’s Labour conference gave people who care about the environment some new grounds for hope. But the party’s top brass still haven’t fully grasped the economic mindset needed for the UK to succeed in a low carbon world.

Most positively – after years of the likes of us banging on about the awfulness of existing government policy – the shadow energy secretary, Caroline Flint, announced a “war on cold homes”.

She set out plans to introduce zero interest loans for insulation and promised to sort out five million leaky properties over the next ten years (not fast enough for our taste, but certainly a lot better than nothing). She also committed to make it easier for schools to install solar panels, saving money in the process.

Meanwhile, shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle made an impassioned social justice case for environmental action, and backed urgently saving our declining bee populations. And Ed Miliband didn’t forget the green stuff this time:

“I said the only way to transform our economy is to make sure we create good jobs. The jobs of the future. So our third national goal is for Britain to be truly a world leader in Green technology by 2025, creating one million new jobs as we do…

The environment may not be fashionable as a political issue any more. But I believe it is incredibly important to our economy today. And it is the most important thing I can do in politics for the future of my kids and their generation.”

This is exactly where the narrative on green stuff needs to be: not tacked onto the end of speeches to keep the tree-huggers happy, but woven into a joined-up story about what economic and social policy actually needs to do.

So far, so good.

So why do I also feel a bit flat? It’s not just the sleep deprivation and the borderline scurvy brought on by a week of conference food.

I think what it is, is this. At the same time as Mr Miliband was speaking, world leaders were gathering in New York to talk about climate change. Everyone seemed to be agreed that it’s all very urgent (which it is) and everyone needs to do something about it.

But, if action on climate change is indeed so urgent, why is it so hard for our politicians to even hint that it’s a good thing to spend a bit of public money doing so?

I should rightly have use the word ‘invest’ there, not ‘spend’. Focus for a minute on insulating homes, as Caroline Flint did on Tuesday. The economic, social and environmental case is overwhelming. Badly insulated homes kill people. They cost the NHS a bucketload. They waste energy and haemorrhage both money to profitable energy companies, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

They mean we have to build more energy infrastructure and make it harder than it needs to be to get off fossil fuels quickly. And insulating them en masse, big time, would generate tens of thousands of jobs right across the country, and give millions of people either more cash in their pocket to spend elsewhere in the economy, or homes they can be comfortable in, or both.

I really can’t think of a better case for public spending – sorry, public investment – than insulating homes. Our estimate is that about £4 billion pounds a year would do the job – money we think should be found by using carbon tax cash, and re-allocating just 2 percent of infrastructure spending.

Even as Caroline Flint was announcing her plans, there was the elephant in the conference hall, sat just offstage, saying: whatever you do, don’t say you’re going to spend any more money. In an otherwise pretty ambitious speech, she concluded by stressing happily that her plans don’t necessarily mean spending more money.

We were pleased that she said insulating homes would be a “national infrastructure priority”; but to deliver, just like with most infrastructure, this is almost certainly going to mean actually spending some more cash.

Our domestic UK debate has been reframed by neoliberal tittle-tattle so that ‘economic credibility’ now means a race over who would cut public spending the fastest. Even if you believe the deficit is the greatest economic problem we face (I don’t), there is a world of difference between genuine investment, about which all parties should be positive and evangelical, and borrowing for day-to-day spending.

There is another problem. To tackle climate change we need to not just invest in the solutions but disinvest from the problems.

Ed Balls’s commitment to airport expansion makes me less certain how he’ll live up to his promise to consider the environmental impacts of such infrastructure – as does the Labour leadership’s willingness to go along with Tory plans to frack Britain’s countryside, setting up an entirely new (and unpopular) fossil fuel industry. Coal remains Britain’s dirtiest technology, responsible for 1,400 premature deaths each year.

So, warm words from Caroline Flint that the only future for coal is with carbon capture and storage are very welcome, but this has to mean ending coal subsides and phasing out coal emissions by the early 2020s.

Perhaps the bigger challenge here is that despite initiatives like the New Climate Economy report from a fortnight ago – which made the compelling case for climate action on economic grounds – there’s still an ingrained resistance of the most powerful economics ministries in the world, including our very own Treasury, to releasing the grip of traditionally powerful fossil fuel industries.

With the slow pace of change, investors (even the Rockefeller Foundation!) are jumping ahead of politicians with their own disinvestment plans.

We – the planetary ‘we’ – only win when we to change the definition of good economic policy to mean investing as if future generations mattered.

Until then, all the warm words in the world are unlikely to be enough, and the debates will continue to focus on the wrong things. And our economies, which critically depend on a planet that we can all peacefully live on, will head for ever rockier-ground in the long-term.

David Powell is senior economics campaigner at Friends of the Earth

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