Climate policy is worth a speech

Stephen Tindale

At last, a member of the shadow cabinet has given a speech about climate change.

Maria Eagle, the shadow environment secretary, went to WWF’s headquarters in Woking yesterday and talked about the choice on offer to the electorate next May: David Cameron, who wants to “cut the green crap”, or Ed Miliband, who “gets” climate change. She didn’t mention Nick Clegg, even though a Lib Dem is currently running climate policy. But Clegg won’t be prime minister, so her focus on Labour and Tories is understandable.

Maria began with an unequivocal statement: “We know that the climate is changing. We know that human activity is contributing to that change.“ She points out that this is accepted by 97% of climate scientists. She highlights that it is not just an ‘environmental’ problem, of interest only to green campaign groups like WWF: “Small shifts in global temperature will cause massive impacts for millions of people”. She notes that there are economic opportunities in decarbonisation: “When Labour left office, we left a green goods and jobs sector that was growing at four times the rate of the rest of the economy”. And she leaves no room for doubt about how seriously she takes the issue of climate change: “I think that this is the biggest challenge facing the world today.”

I agree with her. But I’ve worked on climate change for the last 25 years, so I would say that, wouldn’t I? Does anyone not working on climate change or shadowing DEFRA think this? Yes, actually. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF and not known for tree-hugging tendencies, identifies climate change as “by far the greatest economic threat of the twenty-first century”. Barack Obama puts it similarly high on the agenda, talking of “one of the most significant long-term challenges that our country and our planet faces: the growing threat of a rapidly changing climate”.

Maria made three specific criticisms of the Government: it has undermined the renewable energy industry; it has restricted the role of the Green Investment Bank; and it has slashed flood defence budgets.

She is right about flood defence spending.  She sensibly cites the calculation of the independent Committee on Climate Change, now chaired by Conservative Lord Deben (aka John Gummer), that spending has been cut by around 20%.  She does not pledge to reverse the cuts – Ed Balls would presumably not allow her to – but does say that Labour would re-prioritise flooding as a core responsibility of Defra.  This is sensible politics: there are more votes in flood protection than in, for example, killing badgers.  Maria is right too about the Green Investment Bank.  This is doing some important work, but is weakened by the Coalition’s refusal to allow it to borrow. Labour would allow it to borrow, so making it a bank rather than a quango.

The case against the Government in renewable energy is much less strong. Maria cited its refusal to set a 2030 decarbonisation target. Targets can be useful, but are less important than delivery. The Government is doing well on the expansion of renewable energy, which increased by 30% in 2013. This could have been an opportunity to mention the Liberal Democrats, and give deserved credit to Ed Davey.

Maria’s discussion of international climate policy also put too much emphasis on targets.  She pledges that a Labour government would be “committed to working hard to get a global deal on limiting emissions in Paris next December”. This is a reference to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, which are supposed to reach an agreement in 2015 to set new targets to replace those agreed in Kyoto in 1997. John Prescott and Micheal Meacher played central roles in the agreement of the Kyoto Protocol. But the UNFCCC does not limit emissions. It only sets targets, which are called ‘legally-binding’ but are not enforceable. And if an agreement is reached in Paris next December – which is far from certain, however hard a Labour government worked – new targets would only be set for 2020.  Finance, to pay for technologies which reduce emissions and for adaptation to now-unavoidable climate change, is more important than targets. So the G20 is a better forum for international climate negotiations than the UNFCCC is. G20 members – including the UK under a Labour government – agreed in 2009 to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. Five years on, there has been no progress. This should be the priority for an incoming Labour government.

International climate negotiations are not part of Maria’s brief as shadow environment secretary. They are covered by the shadow DECC team. Caroline Flint is doing an excellent job on energy prices and the cost of living crisis. She should use her clear campaigning skills to highlight the Government’s failings on climate change too.  Douglas Alexander should highlight the good work on climate done by Margaret Beckett and David Miliband at the Foreign Office, plus his own contribution at DFID, and outline what he would do on climate as Foreign Secretary. And Ed Miliband should give a speech explaining what he means when he says he “gets” climate change.  (I’m not just taking this from Maria: I’ve also heard Ed say this in speeches.) If I had the chance to talk to the leader of the opposition for two minutes, this is what I would say:

“Ed, I know you get climate change. You were a good Energy and Climate Secretary. You used to talk about the subject with clear passion and conviction.  You have experience, domestically and on the world stage, which is useful in proving that you would be an effective prime minister.  And you know that the message shouldn’t be doom and gloom: you used to point out that Martin Luther King did not inspire change by saying ‘I have a nightmare’. I understand why it isn’t central to Labour’s electoral strategy.  But surely it is worth a speech? Climate policy is part of economic modernisation and social justice. You could give a great speech on One Nation climate policy. Please.”

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