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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What progressives can learn from Europe

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging.

The debate about the Labour party’s future has seldom been more parochial or inward-looking. Those who pass comment on Labour’s fate from the right and left of the party do so with an almost entirely British lens. In this insular universe, it is as if the world beyond the UK’s shores never existed. ‘Socialism in one country’ is back with a vengeance. Yet to recover politically and electorally, British Labour must learn from social democrats and progressive forces across Europe. There are three critical lessons from other countries that the centre-left ought to heed.  

The first is that centre-left parties have to resist being squeezed between neo-liberalism and the new social movements. Yes, social democrats should rebuild their economic credibility and espouse a responsible governing agenda. But that should not mean rejecting all ties to social and environmental activism. The networked civil society is where most political energy and vitality currently resides in western democracies. The lesson of Podemos in Spain and Greece’s Syriza is that people want to be agents of change themselves, whether saving local high streets from unscrupulous developers or working to build their own affordable housing. Casting a ballot every four or five years no longer constitutes meaningful political engagement. Across Europe, social democrats have to form new alliances in pursuit of a better society reaching beyond traditional party structures. 

A further object lesson is that opposition to austerity on its own is not enough to win power. Of course, premature cuts have weakened growth, jobs and living standards. In southern Europe, the masochistic pursuit of austerity threatens to unleash a social catastrophe. However, centre-left parties must show they would be competent managers of the economy articulating a coherent plan to deal with debt: not just net public sector debt over the economic cycle, but tackling unsustainable financial sector and household debt. Social democrats have to show how they would govern in a world where there is less money around for state spending after the great recession and the impending threat of secular stagnation. This demands a strategy for regulating financial markets that promotes the public good, tackles systemic risks and reforms banks that are ‘too big to fail’. An industrial modernisation plan would rebalance our economies away from their reliance on financial services towards knowledge-intensive sectors and manufacturing. In reforming the tax system, there ought to be a major clamp-down on cross-border tax evasion and fraud while restoring the progressivity of tax using redistribution to tackle new inequalities.

Finally, the left must not be distracted from confronting deeper underlying forces in politics. Centre-left parties are losing elections because voters don’t trust politicians to protect their way of life against the impersonal forces of global change. Europe has pitched dramatically to the right - not only towards Christian Democratic and Conservative parties, but new forces adept at exploiting voters’ fears about economic insecurity, immigration and hostility to the EU. In the UK, UKIP has now become the dominant challenger to Labour in northern England and the Midlands; last year, the Danish People’s party surged to power. In the heartlands of European social democracy, from the Nordic states to France and the Netherlands, right-wing populists are on the rise. In Austria this week, a hard right presidential candidate was in touching-distance of power.

The failure to counter the right isn’t just about poorly executed electoral strategies, weak leadership, or the price of incumbency in coalition governments: something more profound is going on. Regardless of national context, social democracy’s support base is being eaten away. The left is losing, not just on the conventional politics of economic competence, but increasingly on the vexed politics of national identity.

That said, the temptation to raise the drawbridge against immigration ought to be resisted. Flirting with a restrictive immigration policy is superficially tempting when the populist right is winning, but imposing arbitrary limits would be economically damaging as well as politically unprincipled. Instead, low wage and vulnerable workers across the EU ought to be better protected. Permitting the uncontrolled exploitation of low-cost labour in Eastern Europe has undermined the entire European project. More safeguards against agency working and zero-hours contracts are needed.             

Rather than pretending that government on its own can do everything to shield citizens and communities from global market forces, the priority should also be to encourage intermediate institutions located between the central state and the free market that rebuild a sense of local attachment, recreate respect for traditional jobs and civic identities, and encourage a spirit of mutual obligation embodied in organisations like mutual’s and co-op’s. The left must end its ambivalence about English identity in the aftermath of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Labour must not be afraid ‘to speak for England’.

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging. To navigate the hard road back to power, social democratic parties will have to acknowledge the communal attachments that give meaning to our lives in an era of unprecedented insecurity and upheaval. Only by securing the trust and allegiance of citizens within the nation-state can the centre-left win the argument for international engagement and co-operation: the cornerstone of a liberal world order. 

Patrick Diamond is Co-Chair of Policy Network. The Progressive Governance Conference takes place in Stockholm 26-7 May 2016