Cancún: finally, some good news

The private sector has an important role to play in the wake of the climate summit.

As the dust settles at the end of the UN climate talks, it feels as if we are entering a new phase in the fight against climate change.

The UN process has been resuscitated by the outcome of the Cancún summit. Before the curtain went up in Mexico, climate sceptics in the UK said they could hear the sound of the death rattle for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process (UNFCCC).

With the agreement of a new and fair Climate Fund, however, we can now start feeling optimistic that we have turned a corner since the disappointment of Copenhagen last year. Rich countries did agree in Copenhagen to deliver $100bn per year by 2020, and next year crucial decisions on how to raise this money must be made. This will then be channelled through the new fund to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and develop in a low-carbon way.

Companies and investors have recognised for some time now, however, that the private sector has a critical role to play in complementing government action, by climate-proofing their activities and helping to make the global transition to a low-carbon economy. This was underlined at the Copenhagen summit, where both were pushing hard for the elusive global deal that they hoped would set out a clear framework under which businesses could operate.

Company directors are paid to have their eye on the bottom line and many see that strong political action across the world on climate change could spark business opportunities, while possibly creating more jobs and reducing unemployment.

It is in their interests – as well as our own – to recognise the business potential in climate-resilient, low-carbon growth. Europe's environmental sector already employs 3.4 million people and accounts for 2.2 per cent of GDP.

In the United States, a new Oxfam report estimates that two million Americans are employed in sectors, such as water management, agriculture, insurance and disaster preparedness, that help build resilience to the effects of climate change. If new openings are not seized on, Europe risks falling behind the likes of China and the US – both poised to profit from huge investment in low-carbon technologies.

In Cancún, several company directors unveiled practical schemes to underscore their green intentions. For example, the Paris-based Consumer Goods Forum, representing hundreds of manufacturing and retail firms, including Unilever and Tesco, announced that its members plan to use their collective resources to help achieve net zero deforestation by 2020.

This and other initiatives need closer scrutiny before we know what impact they will have on the ground, but it seems to me that this could be more than just greenwashing. I'm expecting there's far more to it than that. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, has recognised that closer partnership between the private and public sectors could offer a win-win situation.

I am heartened by this. We need every tool in the box if we are to help ordinary people cope with the damaging impacts of climate change in many of the countries where Oxfam works, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mexico itself.

Of course, things are not going to change overnight. Many businesses, particularly in the carbon-intensive industries, are clinging to their old ways. They regularly lobby in Brussels to block the EU from making more ambitious cuts to its greenhouse-gas emissions, from 20 per cent to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

While they raise concerns about the competitiveness of their industries under stronger European climate action, it would be good to see these companies lobbying to raise the bar in other national capitals, rather than blocking stronger action at home.

The risk of company greenwashing was highlighted by the recent announcement of the Worst Lobby Awards when, in online voting, the European public sent a clear message that they want to see a major clean-up of the Brussels lobbying scene. The German energy giant RWE and its subsidiary npower scooped first prize for claiming to be green while lobbying to keep coal- and oil-fired power plants open.

It's going to take time to change the practices of all corporates but at Cancún we started to sense that things are moving in the right direction. Companies must now seize the fresh momentum – no one can dispute that a serious commitment by global business to change its practices could have a huge impact on the future of the planet.

There is everything to play for.

Barbara Stocking is the chief executive at Oxfam GB.

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The Brexiteers who hope Article 50 will spark a bonfire of workers' rights

The desire to slash "employment red tape" is not supported by evidence. 

The Daily Telegraph has launched a campaign to cut EU red tape. Its editorial they decried the "vexatious regulations" that "hinder business and depress growth", demanding that we ‘throw regulations on the Brexit bonfire’.

Such demands are not new. Beyond immigration, regulation in general and employment protection in particular has long been one of the key drivers of frustration and fury among eurosceptics. Three years ago, Boris Johnson, decried the "back breaking" weight of EU employment regulation that is helping to "fur the arteries to the point of sclerosis". While the prospect of slashing employment rights was played down during the campaign, it has started to raise its head again. Michael Gove and John Whittingdale have called on the CBI to draw up a list of regulations that should be abolished after leaving the EU. Ian Duncan Smith has backed the Daily Telegraph’s campaign, calling for a ‘root and branch review’ of the costs of regulatory burdens.

The Prime Minister has pledged to protect employment rights after Brexit by transposing them into UK law with the Great Repeal Bill. Yet we know that in the past Theresa May has described the social chapter as a sop to the unions and a threat to jobs.

So what are these back-breaking, artery-clogging regulations which are holding us back? One often cited by Brexiteers is the Working Time Directive. This bit of EU bureaucracy includes such outrageous burdens as the right to paid holiday and breaks, and protection from dangerous and excessive working hours.

Aside from this, many other workplace rights we now take for granted originated from or were strengthened by the EU. From protection from discrimination and the right to equal treatment for agency workers and part time workers; to rights for women and for working parents; and rights to the right to a voice at work and protection from redundancy.

The desire to slash EU-derived employment rights is not driven by evidence. The UK has one of the least regulated labour markets among advanced economies. The OECD index of employment protection shows that the UK comes in the bottom 25 per cent on each of their four measures.

Even if the UK was significantly more regulated than similar countries – which it is not – there is no reason to expect that slashing rights will boost growth. There is no correlation between the strictness of employment protection – as measured by OECD – and economic success. France and Germany both have far more restrictive employment protection than the UK, yet their productivity is far higher than ours. The Netherlands and Sweden have higher employment rates than the UK, yet both have greater protections for those workers. And if EU red-tape was so burdensome, so constraining on businesses, then why has the employment rate continued to increase, standing as it does at a record high?

While the UK certainly doesn’t suffer from excessive employment regulation, too many employees do suffer from insecurity, precarity and exploitation at work. We’ve seen the exponential growth of zero-hours contracts, as well as the steady rise of agency work and self-employment. We’ve seen growing evidence of endemic exploitation and sharp practices at the bottom end of the labour market.

Instead of evidence, it seems the desire to slash employment rates is driven by ideology. Some clearly see Brexit as an opportunity to finish what Margaret Thatcher started, as Lord Lawson, who served as her Chancellor admits. He claims the deregulation of the 1980s transformed the economy, and that leaving the EU provided "the opportunity to do this on an even larger scale with the massive corpus of EU regulation. We must lose not time in seizing this opportunity".

The battle that is to come over employment regulation is just part of a wider struggle over what future Britain should have as we leave the EU. At the start of the year, the Chancellor warned our EU neighbours that if the UK did not get a good deal, we would be forced to abandon the European-style taxation and regulation and "become something different". In a thinly veiled threat, he said that the UK would ‘do whatever we have to’ to compete with the EU. To be fair, the Chancellor said this was not his preferred option. But we know that many see this as the future for the UK economy. Emboldened by both their triumph in Brexit and by an enfeebled and divided opposition, many Brexit-ultras want to build a low-tax, low-regulation, offshore economy that would seek aggressively to undercut the EU. This turbo-charged, Brexit-boosted Thatcherism would not just be bad for our continental neighbours, it would be bad for UK workers too.

Britain faces a choice on leaving the EU. We can either seek to compete in what the last Chancellor called the "global race" by driving up productivity, boosting public and private investment, and improving skills. Or we can engage in a race to the bottom, by slashing rights at work, and making Britain in the words of Frances O’Grady the "bargain basement capital of Europe".

Joe Dromey is a senior research fellow at IPPR, the progressive policy think tank.