Mike Buckley: How the Labour Party can lead on climate change

'Labour and other opposition parties should call out Government hypocrisy and double standards but should be wary of making it a partisan issue.'

Climate change

Mike Buckley is director of CampaignCentral and host of the Labour for a European Future podcast

In 2008, when Labour passed its landmark Climate Change Act, committing the UK to ending carbon emissions and a sustainable economy, Labour owned the issue.

David Cameron made an attempt to convince his party that going green was a good idea, but this was done in response to Labour’s strength. In the end as with so much of Cameron’s leadership it was more media strategy than belief. In power his commitment waned.

Both Johnson and his party have been on a journey of transformation since Cameron left office. As recently as 2014 a poll found widespread doubt amongst Conservative MPs about climate science. Nearly one in five said they thought it pure propaganda, against 73% of Labour MPs who said it was scientific fact.

In truth the Conservatives are still not fully signed up. Last year a poll found fewer than half of Conservative Party members believe human activity is responsible for climate change. Among Conservative MPs a significant number still do not believe that climate science is settled fact, or that action is too expensive or will make little difference.

But the party itself has undeniably shifted position. As part of its post mortem following the 2017 election it took note of polling from the Bright Blue think tank showing that younger voters — among whom the Conservatives had had a dismal showing — put the environment at the top of their priority list.

“It became a huge priority for the government in the wake of that election,” said one former adviser to May. Chris Skidmore, then energy minister, recalls: “We knew we could be the first G7 country to set a net zero target. If we could get it across the line then it would seal our COP26 bid.”

Johnson’s political choice then came in embracing, rather than side lining, the commitment to net zero. In the 2019 election he made net zero by 2050 one of his six pledges alongside hospitals, police, schools, lower immigration and no tax rises.

An adviser to Johnson’s 2019 campaign said that the net zero pledge was not “one of the areas which we thought decisive to win” but “what mattered was showing [it] was realistic.”

The same aide argued Johnson “tends to be good at sensing where people are going … It was something he cared about but also something where if it’s done right, can actually be helpful politically and electorally.”

We may never know whether Johnson has had a true change of heart. In 2015 he was still poking fun at green measures. Six years on he is encouraging not just Britain but the world to adopt them. But what world leaders believe hardly matters. In the fight against climate change first pledges, and ultimately action, are all that counts.

On that measure Johnson’s record is patchy. He has gone beyond mere slogans. Diesel and petrol cars will be phased out from 2030, new build homes will be zero emission from 2035 and the electricity network is being progressively decarbonised. On each of these Johnson can claim some credit both for the policy itself and its ambition.

He is nevertheless inconsistent. There are at least 40 new fossil fuel projects planned in the UK. If approved these projects would emit 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon.

Headline projects like the Cambo oilfield and a coal mine in Cumbria are the “tip of the iceberg” says policy researcher Rebekah Diski. “Beneath them lie a pipeline of prospective coal, oil and gas developments that will sink the UK’s climate efforts unless the Government changes direction.”

Rishi Sunak’s budget raised more concerns. It froze fuel duty and halved air passenger duty on domestic flights. It was, says Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, a budget for a “parallel universe where there wasn’t a climate emergency, and we weren’t about to host the world’s nations at this big climate summit”.

Even as COP26 takes place Johnson and Sunak are criticised for having failed to do the diplomacy necessary to make the conference a success, and of releasing half baked commitments.

Sunak’s finance pledge has been accused of letting financial services off the hook, allowing them to continue investing in fossil fuel projects while claiming to have gone green. He is reputed to have blocked green measures in government and to oppose net zero.

This leaves UK climate action and its politics in a strange position. On the one hand those of us concerned about the climate should be grateful that there is broad consensus on achieving net zero. It is not a partisan issue as in the US or as Brexit is here.

This, along with broad public support for tough action on emissions, should enable tough measures to be introduced.

As we move beyond COP26 Labour and other opposition parties should call out Government hypocrisy and double standards but should be wary of making it a partisan issue.

Climate sceptic MPs are a fringe group in the Conservative Party now, but so were Eurosceptics a decade ago. There is evidence that some of the same financiers and campaigners behind Vote Leave are now seeking influence in the Conservative Party to turn it against meaningful climate action.

In this context we should celebrate Johnson’s successes even while calling for him to do more. Attempts to paint him as a mere hypocrite could backfire.

To its credit Labour did set out a more robust climate policy at its September conference, where Rachel Reeves committed the party to spend £28bn per year on tackling the climate crisis.

The amount would quadruple the Government’s capital investment. Labour said it would attract a matching sum of private investment in green technologies, seen as essential by climate campaigners aware that public funds alone will fail to achieve needed change.

But perhaps ironically Labour would do well to learn from Johnson’s communications strategy. His pitch this week was on the need for change in four tangible areas: cars, coal, cash and trees. Reducing a complex problem to tangible issues the public can understand is good comms, and is reportedly cutting through.

Labour can better him in at least two ways: ambition and equality. Even after COP26 both Britain and the world will need to go far beyond current commitments to ensure the climate stabilises at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Labour should move UK policy to a point where we are not just doing enough to reach 1.5C, but going beyond it.

Labour should also ground the climate debate in equality. Within the UK that means ensuring that the poorest do not bear the greatest burden, either in costs or lifestyle changes. Globally that means ensuring that poorer nations have access to the finance and wider support they need to achieve net zero.

The ideal state for British climate politics is a race to high ambition, where both Conservatives and Labour seek to gain votes on the basis of commitment to tough climate action. Labour should begin that race by allying bold spending commitments with clear communication that makes the climate crisis tangible to voters, and which allies it with commitments on fairness and equality.

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