By Julian Vaughan
After being asked to stand in at short notice and give a presentation to my local Labour Party on Labour’s ‘Green’ policy I spent a few hours trawling the internet and writing notes in preparation. I have written previously about the importance of crystal clear messaging and the need to present a radical alternative to the current Conservative government. Therefore, it was disappointing to find that if you type ‘What is Labour policy on net-zero carbon emissions?’ into a well known search engine, the top five results are from 2019. The first result discussing recent Labour thinking on climate change is an article suggesting that the previous manifesto commitment to a 2030 net-zero target could be reviewed. In the end, this commitment was retained, confirmed in Sir Keir Starmer’s interview with the Independent newspaper in August 2021.
So what were Labour’s 2019 manifesto commitments on climate change action and how were they formed? Following motions on climate change adopted at the 2019 Labour Conference, the Labour Party tasked a group of independent energy industry experts to identify the most radical and feasible pathway to decarbonising the energy system by 2030. The recommendations are contained in the ‘Thirtyby2030’ report which were then placed in the 2019 manifesto. In summary, the main commitments were as follows:
- An upgrade of almost all of the UK’s 27 million homes to the highest energy efficiency standards by 2030
- The re-introduction of a zero carbon buildings standard by 2020. This standard first put forward under Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2008, was abandoned by the Tories in 2016
- The installation of 8 million high efficiency heat pumps in homes and buildings by 2030
- 90% renewable and zero carbon electricity production
- 50% of our heat from low carbon sources
- 7,000 offshore turbines
- 2,000 onshore turbines
- 3 new gigafactories
- Tripling the current number of solar panels
- Investment to decarbonise the UK to bring a net benefit of £800B to the economy by 2030
- The creation of 850,000 new green energy jobs
- A windfall tax on oil companies
- Public ownership of energy and water companies
- Free bus travel for under 25s and the re-introduction of 3,000 bus services cut by the Tories since 2010
- The extension of HS2 up to Scotland
- The introduction of a new ‘Clean Air Act’
- A just transition to a new low carbon economy, liaising with unions to retrain workers.
So what if anything has changed in Labour policy since the 2019 General Election defeat? Well, it’s actually quite difficult to figure out what policies have been retained and what policies may either be beefed up or watered down. I’ve spent some time looking for recent policy commitments, either in writing or contained within speeches and I set out what I have found below. However, the vast majority of voters will not be willing to spend anywhere near the amount of time required to obtain this information.
On 3rd August 2021, the Independent newspaper wrote of their interview with Sir Keir Starmer that he: “made clear that the detailed policy backing up the pledge was subject to Labour’s ongoing review, which will not report until nearer the next election“.
Unfortunately, I believe this cautious approach is a gift to the Tories, who can set out their policies to the electorate without fear of being gazumped by Labour policy. If no alternative is provided it’s very easy for people to believe that what they are being offered is the best deal in town. Without continual pressure on this issue, it also results in an easy ride for a government currently in severe difficulty. I believe it is vital that Labour seize the initiative on this (and other) issues and step into campaign mode, rather than continuing the reactive approach, waiting for the Tories to falter. In fairness, I have noticed a recent change in approach, with Labour getting on the front foot around issues such as the Paterson lobbying scandal, and apart from morally being the correct action to take, it has clearly paid political dividends.
However, from various sources, below is the outline of Labour’s current policy offering on climate change action:
- A £28 billion per year green investment fund
- A mass retrofitting fund to support 400,000 additional jobs
- Interest free loans for new and used electric vehicles
- 3 new gigafactories by 2025
- A substantial majority of carbon emission reductions to take place within the next decade
- A re-commitment to every new home being net zero carbon
- A new ‘Clean Air Act’
- Every government policy to be benchmarked against a net zero test.
In her excellent Labour Conference speech (a future leadership contender perhaps?) Rachel Reeves committed to being the first ‘green’ Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The current leader Sir Keir Starmer has recently spoken about climate change being ‘the biggest issue of our time’ and how ‘time is short and we have a duty to act’, as well as setting out the need for a Green New Deal. However, there have also been mixed messages sent out. The Labour Conference policy motion promoted by ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’ was originally ruled out of order by the conference arrangements committee, only to be ruled in order after an appeal. In the end, this motion and another motion on similar lines proposed by the GMB were both passed at Conference. You can read both motions in full here.
While there are many similarities between the two, the Green New Deal backed by Momentum, Labour for a Green New Deal and the TSSA and FBU unions, was more wide-ranging, including a national care service and the repeal of all trade union laws, while the GMB’s motion voiced concerns about potential job losses and continuing with nuclear power as part of the UK’s energy mix. It remains to be seen how much policy from both motions is eventually adopted as official Labour policy.
While we still have unanswered questions about what Labour’s policy is on net-zero carbon, it is worth taking a look at what the Tories say they are going to do, and what they have done in the past.
In November 2020 the government released ‘The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ and its ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener‘ plan in October 2021 as well as the delayed ‘Heat and Buildings Strategy’ in the same month. These policies have been reviewed by Carbon Brief, an independent UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science and climate policy here, as well as the Climate Change Committee, an independent statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 here. There is a considerable amount of detail in all the documents linked to above, but they also provide shorter executive summaries for those whose time is short.
The responses to the Tory plans were broadly positive, in terms of the scale of the ambition set out in the plans, while also highlighting a number of areas of concern. A word search in the ‘Net Zero Strategy’ document shows that ‘offshore’ (wind) is referred to 11 times, while ‘solar’ (electricity) generation is mentioned 26 times and ‘onshore’ wind is mentioned only 18 times.
Looking through the technical annex of the ‘Net Zero Energy’ report, the table below appears which sets out various scenarios to reach net-zero by 2050, alongside the current emissions for each sector. There are two striking issues with the information in the table. Firstly, by 2050 there will still be a considerable amount of emissions from International Aviation and Shipping – in two of the three scenarios at broadly similar levels to 2019. Secondly, for unproven technology, Greenhouse Gas Removals is doing a lot of heavy lifting to counterbalance the significant amount of residual emissions.
However, while pledges and long-term aspirations are very easy to set out in reports or speak about in interviews it is actions that are the true test and on this basis, the Tories come up short.
- The zero-carbon homes plan, first proposed by Gordon Brown in 2008, was abandoned by the Tories in 2016 with new proposals not due to come into force until 2025
- The government’s desperation to sign a trade deal with Australia led to the cutting of climate pledges to ‘sweeten’ the deal
- Rishi Sunak’s budget cut domestic air passenger duty, making air travel even cheaper compared to lower carbon emission alternatives
- The imminent licensing of the ‘Cambo’ oil field to the West of the Shetland Islands
- Abandoned the Green Homes Grant scheme after less than a year
- Paid out £40 billion in fossil fuel subsidies since 2020.
Further to this, we have a Prime Minister who flew back from the COP26 summit. Johnson already has form for this, after flying by private jet to the G7 leaders’ summit in Cornwall last year. Leading by example is not Johnson’s strength. There are also trust issues with a Prime Minister and a government that has failed to keep their promises, whether it be on HS2, social care, or their shambolic and arguably corrupt approach to the Covid 19 pandemic. A government whose primary ethos is that of profit above all else is likely to be swayed off course by corporate interests which are determined that the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve net-zero will not be their sacrifices.
It’s also concerning that the government seems to believe it can do this without a substantial change from ‘business as usual’, talking about going ‘with the grain’ of consumer choice and ‘guilt-free’ flying. There was also a lack of any requirement for dietary change. The government seems unwilling to have an honest discussion with the electorate about some of the sacrifices that will be required to successfully meet the challenge of the looming climate emergency.
Returning to Labour policy, while they have highlighted the lack of sufficient investment in a green transition from Tory plans, there is so far a lack of detail on how the pledged £28 billion per year will be spent. We are already in the second year of a decade where significant action on reducing carbon emissions is vital to achieving the aim of reducing global warming to as near to 1.5C as possible. With an 80 seat majority to overcome, it is not unrealistic to assume that Labour may not get into power until near its end. However, in spite of this, it is vital that Labour press forward urgently with providing a radical alternative to, and highlight the deficiencies of, current government policy. Waiting until just prior to the next General Election, which may not be called until 2024, loses precious time in which to apply political pressure to force change.
The need to act is beyond doubt: we are already seeing the impact of a 1.1C rise in temperatures. I have no doubt that there will be political pressures not to act and attempts made to put up barriers against the migration caused by climate change. As individuals, we can feel powerless against the looming disaster, but we can influence others, and by working with others we can influence governments and in turn, they can influence other governments. It will require collaboration across the political spectrum and long-term thinking way beyond the normal political cycle. Climate change presents huge challenges, but also opportunities to change our society for the better alongside a just transition to a green economy. For these reasons while we may not succeed, surely we must try.
Julian Vaughan was Labour Parliamentary candidate for NE Bedfordshire in 2017 and 2019. and a Labour NEC candidate in 2020. He is a member of NE Bedfordshire CLP and ASLEF and blogs here. This post first appeared here. Twitter: @juliman66
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