The coalition must not go soft on climate change

Britain should be playing a leading role in helping green the world.

This week, politicians, campaigners and business leaders from around the world are gathered in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit - the biggest gathering on sustainable development since the first Earth Summit in Rio twenty years ago.  Rio+20 is a chance to chart a path to a safer, greener, more equitable economy, particularly for the world’s poorest. The government has said that Rio+20 should be a workshop not a talking shop.  But to have credibility on the international stage, it isn’t enough to talk the talk; they have to walk the walk. Sustainable development starts at home - and here the government has some tough questions to answer.

The government claims it is ambitious for change, however with the forest sell-off, a stalemate on carbon reporting, indifference to growing food and rural poverty at home, and the debate over the planning reforms, this ambition has not been matched by action. We have a Tory-led government ideologically wedded to a failed economic approach and a Chancellor who sees the environment as a barrier to growth.  The government is ignoring the voice of businesses who want regulatory certainty and is bowing to the Treasury’s anti-environment, anti-regulatory rhetoric. 

With Britain back in recession and the global economy flat-lining, it is easy to understand why the government is pushing sustainable development to the backburner – claiming it a luxury that can only be afforded when times are good. But it is precisely because we are living through tough times that we need to look to new ways to kick start the economy.  And if we wish to ensure that our children don’t have to suffer even tougher times in the future, this is an imperative.  We want our government to take a leading role in helping shape the world around us. Rising energy prices, higher food bills and changing weather patterns are inter-linked. What happens in one part of the world affects us all – whether it’s a food crisis in the Sahel in Africa or soaring unemployment in Greece – and we will only succeed in tackling them together.  Britain can and should be playing a leading role in helping shape the future of our planet. 

The UK must diversify its economy at home to drive green growth by investing in clean energy, green technology and resource efficiency.  We need a government that wants to lead the world on sustainable development, eradicating poverty and creating the green jobs and industries of the future.  Instead we have a government that is out of touch with anyone who cares about our natural environment or creating sustainable jobs for the future.

The World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 defined sustainable development as: ‘Development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, development that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. The original Rio declaration in 1992 set out important goals to eradicate poverty, reduce unsustainable production and to protect the world’s ecosystems. But the 20 years since Rio have seen continued and, in many cases, growing global and domestic challenges posed by climate change and over-exploitation of natural resources.

But there is appetite for change. The last Labour government passed the landmark Climate Change Act setting a target to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, the growth in fair trade products and the level of public support for campaigns like Make Poverty History are all signs that change is possible. Last year, over 600,000 people signed the petition against the government’s plans to sell off our public forests, a clear demonstration that the British public don’t share the government’s laissez-faire attitude to our natural world.

The Labour Party has a long legacy of leading the way in international development and campaigning to protect our natural environment. The government should seize the opportunity of Rio to help create new, sustainable jobs and growth in low carbon and environmental industries.

Mary Creagh is the shadow environment secretary, Caroline Flint, is the shadow climate and energy secretary, and Ivan Lewis is the shadow international development secretary

SERA the Labour Environment Campaign has today published a collection of essays on Rio+20 and the challenges of sustainable development with contributions from Mary Creagh (Shadow Environment Secretary), Caroline Flint (Shadow Energy Secretary), Ivan Lewis (Shadow International Development Secretary), Linda McAvan MEP, Richard Howitt MEP and others.

Environmental activists march during a demonstration against the forest code and the Belo Monte Hydroelectric plant construction, in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.