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The Century's Challenge

13/04/2016 17:00 | Updated 14 April 2016

In December 2015 nearly every country in the world came together in Paris to agree to limit global warming to well below 2C. With the world's two biggest polluters, the USA and China signed up to the deal, there is now no question that we can turn back. Nor should we want to.

The implications of climate change for the world's poorest countries have already become apparent. Water and food shortages have becoming an increasingly important factor in global conflict, with loss of life and displacement of people becoming more common.

But in the UK too the implications of climate change are becoming increasingly clear. For the second time in recent years floods have devastated large swathes of the country, putting homes and businesses under water. Also, with the UK's towns and cities still major polluters (London broke its annual air pollution limits in the first week of 2016), the implications for health and life expectancy are stark.

With so many jobs reliant on oil and gas, particularly in the north east of Scotland and north east of England, the consequences of this shift on whole communities are huge. The UK's last deep coal mine closed in 2015 and in the last year alone 65,000 jobs were lost as reserves in the North Sea have become harder to exploit.

There is even more at stake than this. As the governor of the Bank of England set out in September 2015, the UK is heavily invested in fossil fuels. As the world moves towards a low carbon future, pensions, savings, and the financial system as a whole are extremely vulnerable without a well-managed transition.

On the political right, climate sceptics and advocates of limited government have united to try to halt investment in clean energy and wider efforts to tackle climate change. In the UK, investment in renewable energy is already beginning to fall off a cliff as a consequence.

With a government bound by a powerful combination of political and economic forces, the left's response becomes critical. Just as in the 1960s Britain was changed profoundly by the 'white heat of technology', the country is changing again.

A modern, progressive response to this challenge has three elements: an active, enlightened and enabling state, a green industrial strategy, and the ambition to secure the active involvement of the widest range of people in building a new economy.

A progressive government could unleash the potential of an active enabling state, prepared to invest in the technology of the future: solar, wind, tidal, CCS and battery technology. Much of this technology is new, and prohibitively risky to private investors without government backing But as we have seen in relation to solar and wind power in recent years, the preparedness of governments to invest has helped to unlock private capital and costs have fallen dramatically.

The way in which this investment is funded will be critical in building a broad public consensus about the future. Clean energy schemes are currently funded almost entirely by energy bill payers, a regressive funding model which has left the poorest households paying six times as much for the transition to clean energy compared to the wealthiest, according to IPPR research. We need to find a fairer way forward.

Alongside this the UK needs an industrial strategy to address the reality that some communities, including in some of the poorest parts of the country, risk standing to lose from the move away from fossil fuels.

The jobs that currently exist in energy are often highly skilled, long term and labour intensive. Many of the new jobs that Britain has managed to create in clean energy are shorter term and lower pay. Funding and strategy is needed to reverse this trend and create new, good quality jobs in areas like research and development.

The question is not whether the jobs of the future will be created, but who will create them, in the areas where they are needed, to power us through the next century. But this is not something that can be left to governments to undertake on their own. It needs people at its heart.

Increasingly as government withdraws its financial and political support, Labour councils are already at the forefront of what the leader of Manchester has called "a clean energy revolution". Ahead of the landmark Paris summit, 60 Labour councils pledged to go carbon free by 2050.

The approach taken by community groups and councils, to work incrementally towards a different, ambitious future is one the left must adopt in coming years.

With Labour out of power at a national level, this regional leadership will be essential in the coming years to ensure that the UK continues to make progress towards climate safety. The challenge posed by climate change can only be solved by core Labour values: the pursuit of social justice, internationalism, solidarity, an active, enabling and empowering state, and a belief that we achieve more through our common endeavour than we achieve alone.

Lisa Nandy is the Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and Labour MP for Wigan

This blog is an extract from the Fabian Society pamphlet, Future Left: Can the Left Respond to a Changing Society?

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