We can’t let the narrative on ULEZ dissuade us from radical action on the climate

In truth Uxbridge is a poor template for the coming national election for either main party.

ULEZ signs

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

Global temperatures this month have shattered records. The past three weeks have been the hottest since records began and July is on track to be the hottest month ever recorded.

“Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning,” said the UN secretary general, António Guterres. “It is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C [above pre-industrial levels], and avoid the very worst of climate change. But only with dramatic, immediate climate action.”

“The air is unbreathable, the heat is unbearable, and the level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable,” he continued. “Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy, no more excuses, no more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.”

Yet world leaders are failing to meet either their commitments or their responsibilities to this or future generations.

The harsh reality is we are failing to meet the challenge of climate change. To keep global warming to no more than 1.5C, as called for in the landmark Paris Agreement, emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

Yet in 2022 emissions were still rising, albeit by a relatively small amount. The chances of almost halving global emissions by 2030 are slim, but, says the UN, we “have options in all sectors to at least halve emissions by 2030,” we just need the political and public will to pursue them. 

The International Energy Agency roadmap to net zero emissions mandated no new oil and gasfields approved for development from 2021. Instead governments including the USUK and Australia have granted licences to drill for more.

Marina Romanello, a climate and health researcher at University College London and head of the Lancet Countdown, said: “We have data showing how the very foundations of health are being undermined by climate change and, despite that knowledge, we’re seeing governments and companies still prioritising fossil fuels.”

The impacts of rising temperatures are no longer theory or impacting only already warmer parts of the world. UK news is increasingly filled with the climate crisis: devastating wildfires across the Mediterranean, climate scientists shocked by ‘insane’ record breaking heat, record low Arctic summer sea ice and projections that 2022’s record UK temperatures will be the norm by mid century.

Yet despite the urgency of headlines and scientific warnings our response is lacking. Here in the UK we’ve spent more time discussing Nigel Farage’s bank account over the last week than scorching fires and lost lives on Greek islands. This week’s BBC report on record temperatures still contained the obligatory scientist making the case that humanity induced climate change is indeed real and deserving of a swift response.

It’s not just the media that’s struggling to catch up. Our politics is too, with politics as usual co-existing uneasily with the hard scientific realities of the climate emergency.

Rishi Sunak and his Government pay lip service to their net zero commitments but increasingly act and speak against meaningful action. Energy Minister Grant Shapps last week vowed to “max out” our North Sea oil and gas reserves, despite the desperate need to end fossil fuel use and leave remaining oil, coal and gas underground.

Sunak and his allies have spotted what they believe to be an electoral opportunity after their narrow win in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. Both Labour and the Conservatives put the unexpected result down to voter anger over the expansion of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

Sunak now believes that rowing back or outright opposition to green measures will give him a chance in next year’s general election, hence Shapps’ attempt to create distinction with Labour, which has committed to grant no new North Sea licences, even though they would not revoke existing contracts.

Sunak is overstating the likely impact of anti green policies. The vast majority of the public are worried about climate change. Half want the net zero target brought forward from 2050. A summer of record temperatures, wildfires in formerly safe holiday destinations and scientists raising the alarm are only likely to raise concern further. Sunak is in all likelihood speaking to a diminishing minority of voters.

He also risks losing more votes than he gains: this year’s local elections saw the Conservatives losing votes to the Green Party due to their perceived lack of care for or interest in the environment and British farming (in part a result of the botched Brexit deal), as well as to Labour.

In truth Uxbridge is a poor template for the coming national election for either main party.

The lesson is to ensure that environmental measures are well explained (this one was not, with Labour canvassers reporting many car owners angry at the charge had vehicles which would in any case be exempt) and funded, ensuring that the state bears a large part of any costs and that the benefits are widely publicised.

ULEZ expansion will save lives and lead to better long term health for all Londoners, particularly the city’s children and more vulnerable residents. It will also help cut vehicle pollution, a key area for cutting emissions, with more than one third of CO₂ emitted in 2022 coming from road transport. Yet many voters remained unaware of benefits, but had heard (often for them irrelevant) costs loud and clear.

It was made needlessly expensive for the minority with older vehicles by the Government’s refusal to back a scrappage scheme as they have done in other cities, a political ploy that in the end only harms less well off voters.

Labour too has discussed its response to the Uxbridge result.

“We are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour party end up on each and every Tory leaflet. We’ve got to face up to that and learn the lessons,” said Labour leader Keir Starmer.  He subsequently asked Sadiq Khan, to “reflect” on the impact of extending the scheme.

Starmer effectively told last week’s National Policy Forum not to “let what happened with us in Uxbridge happen to us nationally.” The election must be about a tired and exhausted Conservative government instead of Labour tax rises.        

Starmer is right to be cautious: public trust on economic management is essential for Labour to win, as is a belief that taxes for the majority will not rise under a Labour Government.

The risk, says the FT’s Stephen Bush, is that seeking to neutralise one set of problems could come at the price of making it seem as if Starmer would change little at a time when voters are desperate for someone to take charge and fix what’s broken: the NHS, transport, education and increasingly the climate.

This is the terrain Labour needs to navigate: offering enough stability, caution and fiscal credibility to win over cautious swing voters while offering enough vision to win backing from those desperate for change.

Behind it all is the unrelenting backdrop of increasing climate catastrophe and an urgent need for emissions reductions that will not wait for any country’s electoral cycle.

Given the speed at which climate change is gathering pace it seems likely that in one or two election cycles emissions reductions and mitigation of impacts will dominate election campaigns.

For now Labour would do well to knit together two narratives it has already developed: its prioritisation of fiscal credibility from recent weeks with its genuinely ambitious plan to invest £28bn per year in household insulation, green energy and industry.

That level of investment can be transformative for the UK’s response to climate change, ushering in a new era of clean energy, climate responsive industries, insulated homes and lowered emissions.

But it can be sold not as cost but as benefit: the required investment will create thousands of jobs in new and expanded industries, improve health and air quality, create better and more efficient public transport and place the UK economy in the global race to become a centre of production for green energy and technology.

Labour’s recent decision to defer hitting £28bn investment to the second half of the parliament is disappointing yet realistic: a new government would struggle to get such a large project off the ground in year one, and doing so means Starmer and Rachel Reeves can commit to the policy with the caveat that it will only be actioned once affordable.

In one way Uxbridge has been helpful for Labour: voters rightly concerned about the climate crisis now have a clear choice at the next election. A vote for Sunak will lead to more drilling in the North Sea, more emissions, more climate damage and chaos, more wasted years in which we could have been taking action.

A vote for Labour will bring significant investment and a pivot to a clean, investment rich economy. Labour can make the case for ambitious action, not as a cost to households or the country, but as an investment for this and future generations, for our prosperity and for a safer climate.

(Picture credit: ULEZ signs – Licensed CC BY 2.0 by Matt Brown on Flickr)

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