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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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the trade union leadership

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.