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Leading on climate change must form an essential part of Labour’s foreign policy

It's one of the biggest political issues we have ever faced.

Ed Miliband addressing Labour Party Conference as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in 2009. Photo: Getty
Ed Miliband addressing Labour Party Conference as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in 2009. Photo: Getty

The context of the foreign policy of the next Labour Government will differ significantly from the last. With the drawdown from Afghanistan, for the first time in over decade the UK’s role in the world will not be primarily defined by a prolonged military engagement. As Ukraine and Syria show, international flashpoints are never far away, but with substantially reduced armed forces and the need to reflect on experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the question will be where and how should the UK focus our considerable influence and resources?

One of the answers must certainly be in the UK leading international action to tackle climate change. Today’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lays bare the scale of the task – climate change is already happening, it is set to get much worse, and there will be profound consequences for the UK and the world if action to mitigate it is not stepped up now.

The Paris Conference in December 2015 will therefore be a global summit of huge importance. It will provide an opportunity for the world’s leaders to reach agreement on a legally-binding treaty to ensure we have the ability to prevent a global temperature rise above 2 degrees. The success of this conference is vital, and the UK – under the leadership of Prime Minister Ed Miliband – could be pivotal in making that happen.

Much is made of the influence and diplomatic clout provided by the UK’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, or as a principal nuclear power, but the influence and goodwill generated on the world stage by being in the vanguard of tackling climate change should not be underestimated. As the first country in the world to pass binding legislation to tackle emissions the UK has a great deal of credit in the bank – credit that, unfortunately, is beginning to be eroded by the increasingly agnostic view of the Coalition Government. Labour must restore and build on that.

What would success look like? An agreement that includes for the first time all of the major emitters and which contains quantified mitigation commitments and legally binding rules, including short commitment periods and regular reviews to avoid lock-in to low ambition. It will also need to address issues of finance, deforestation and climate adaptation. Many people worry that such a treaty is too difficult to achieve given the unlikelihood of any US President persuading the Senate to ratify an international treaty. But over the last year, under President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, there has been a fundamental shift in US attitudes to climate change. Though declining to ratify many treaties the US often does comply and the possibility exists for the US to take on commitments by Executive Order under the already ratified UNFCC Convention. It can also introduce new policies under the existing Clean Air Act even if new domestic legislation is currently difficult to achieve. The attitude of the US and what it does will invariably impact on the approach that China takes, but we should recognise that climate change, and related issues around air quality and environmental degradation, are issues that China’s leaders take extremely seriously.

The politics of this will naturally be challenging. Many perceive a conflict between addressing climate change and ensuring economic growth, or are concerned about the impact of low-carbon generation on the affordability of energy. But for the UK this agenda also represents an enormous opportunity for the future – we should remember that the green economy is one of the few areas where the UK currently has a positive balance of trade with China. It also brings with it a host of related benefits in terms of energy security, better housing, and greater sustainability for business. For countries where this will be more of a burden, however, the UK should use its considerable international aid resources to assist with their transition.

For a safe and prosperous future, and for a chance to engage a new generation in one of the biggest political issues we have ever faced, leading on climate change and the Paris Conference must form an essential part of Labour’s foreign policy during the next Government.

Jonathan Reynolds is the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde and a Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change.

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