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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.