A Labour party member once told Ed Miliband, after listening to him speak about the dangers of climate change, “Ed, Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘ I have a nightmare’. He said ‘I have a dream’”. And yet, with publication of this week’s stark new IPCC report we have what appears to be an unfolding global ‘nightmare’ we seem incapable of preventing. Hardly the stuff of inspiration. So how do we turn this unfolding ‘existential threat’ into the language of hope?
It is common to speak of the economic opportunities tackling climate change represents, and there is a lot of truth to this: rapid decarbonisation offers a profound economic opportunity to revive our productivity and reshape our economy as part of a green jobs revolution.
Yet it is clear that the current neoliberal economic model will not step up to the challenge, which is why Labour are clear that energy transition must go hand in hand with the widening of ownership and democratic control in our economy.
As Professor Nick Stern observed back in 2006, “climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen”. In other words, markets will not solve climate breakdown on their own. Nor will they stop the rapidly deteriorating levels of biodiversity loss and breaching of of planetary boundaries. In fact I would go further and argue that the entire paradigm of deregulated markets, the all consuming drive for profit maximisation and the resulting gross inequality, has itself acted as the greatest recent driver of climate change and ecological degradation.
What is called for is a political and economic narrative that has an honest analysis of what is happening and why, a vision of what a modern, sustainable economy actually looks like, and a route map to get to this ‘promised land’.
This then is the challenge Labour has embarked upon across departments. As part of that work, the shadow treasury team has been working alongside a group of climate scientists and environmental economists recruited to ask what is necessary for the UK to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. To date some of the things I’ve learned have been deeply troubling.
Despite the government’s rhetoric, UK emissions have not fallen at all since 1990 - if you account for emissions from international aviation and shipping, and consumption of imported goods. Meanwhile, when we look closely at the UN goals and UK carbon budgets to limit warming to less than 2ºc, we see they rely on future ‘negative emissions technologies’. In other words we’re counting on our children and grandchildren to devise technologies that will suck vast amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere after 2050. No pressure, kids.
My advisors explain that these two key issues - zero progress hidden by misleading carbon accounting and the fact we’re relying on sci-fi technology and blind optimism - lead to a sobering scientific conclusion: that countries like the UK require a much steeper trajectory of reductions than the one the government has committed to. Fail to achieve these kinds of cuts in any one decade, and I am told you can kiss goodbye to attaining a long-term 2ºC and below target.
This is serious advice, and has implications that should be considered across the economy. Labour has thrown down the gauntlet to the government by committing to providing 60% renewable and low carbon energy within 12 years of coming into office - because when you’re running out of road, it is vital to have short-term decarbonisation goals as well as long term targets.
As sobering as this all is, this is where the language of ‘opportunity’ comes into play, because a meaningful political response to climate change offers opportunities for radical revision of both the role and remit of the Treasury in this process as well as other departments, local govt, civil society and of course markets.
At this year’s party conference Jeremy Corbyn and my colleague Rebecca Long-Bailey outlined a full embrace of the economic opportunities decarbonisation offers our country, including ambitious plans to drive economic prosperity in every region of Britain through a massive rollout of renewable energy. For those that understand the Corbyn project, there’s also another prized objective - that of social and economic justice. If we play it right, the radical economic transition which the science demands can open up an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent Britain as a better, fairer, smarter and more compassionate place to live.
That’s why the principle of equity will be central to Labour’s approach to tackling climate change. Today, the richest 10% of the world’s population are responsible for half of all emissions, while those least responsible for causing climate change will be hit first and worst by its impacts. Even within the UK, average emissions from richer households are 50% higher than from poorer ones. The implication here is that efficient carbon mitigation policies must target the high emitters first. As climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson puts it, “you can’t take emissions away from people who haven’t got them.”
And therein lies the political truth at the heart of the sustainability and decarbonisation project we’ve embarked upon. The understanding that tackling inequality - a core Labour purpose - dove-tails perfectly with saving the planet. A new socialist narrative for the 21st Century beckons, if we have the courage and vision to pursue it.
Clive Lewis is the Labour MP for Norwich South