Climate change - are we doing enough?

Are plans to cut carbon emissions by 60 per cent enough to stave off the worst effects of climate ch

The latest draft of the Climate Change Bill may be riddled with unclear and insufficient targets for carbon reduction, but its defenders across all parties agreed that it’s the best option at the moment for meeting the ambitious 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions promised by Gordon Brown last year.

The issues were debated by Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, Conservative spokesman Peter Ainsworth, Lib Dem Steve Webb, and Friends of the Earth (FoE) director Tony Juniper at a joint FoE/Evening Standard event in central London on 22 April.

The bill has been amended by the House of Lords, and will be put to the Commons within this legislative year.

Juniper praised the bill for its forward-thinking and its intention to significantly cut the UK’s carbon footprint, but criticised the failure to incorporate the latest scientific findings - that an 80 per cent reduction in carbon by 2050 is necessary to forestall the most dire effects of climate change, not 60 per cent, as originally predicted by Lord Stern in his damning environmental report last year.

Hilary Benn defended the 60 per cent target, asserting that the bill allowed for flexibility on this point. He noted that the Committee on Climate Change, a body of 15 scientists which will be given binding powers to advise and supervise the government’s progress in meeting the target, will have the power to change this target if necessary. “I’d much rather have scientists decide that then politicians,” he said.

But real doubts persist over the bill’s ability to substantially curb carbon emissions while avoiding any mention of the shipping and aviation industry, which are estimated as 6.5 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions. Peter Ainsworth said it was “nonsense to pretend the impacts of aviation and shipping do not exist,” and criticised the government’s plan to fix the problem in the next five years.

The bill also curbs the amount of carbon payments the government may purchase at 30 per cent of all carbon emissions, leaving the UK responsible for 70 per cent of its carbon product. However, because the bill only accounts for carbon emissions and not other harmful greenhouse gases such as nitrogen and methane, the net effect of meeting these targets will not reverse the downward trajectory of global warming.

For all their talk of “people power” and the “court of public opinion,” none of the panellists were willing to entertain the notion of a personal carbon tax, claiming the population was not yet ready for such drastic cuts in their personal consumption. “It makes a huge difference who actually has to make sacrifices,” said Liberal Democrat spokesman Steve Webb. “There are difficult choices to be made, and there’s a danger of turning people off."

Juniper agreed, noting how the climate change movement has done such an effective job scaring the electorate, and now it was time to “show how positive impacts could be good for society and good for the economy.” But he emphasised that, without a commitment to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050, global warming would still be a monumental threat to the UK.

Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times