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The Conservatives have forgotten the greatest challenge of all: climate change

Those early days - with the promise of being the greenest government ever - feel very far away indeed.

It is easy to forget that it was only five years ago when David Cameron and George Osborne presented themselves to the country as a green Prime Minister and Chancellor in waiting.

While Cameron famously hugged huskies and promised to lead the ‘greenest government ever’, Osborne told climate campaigners, “if I become Chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe.”

Yet within months of taking up residence in Downing Street George Osborne was pledging Britain would no longer lead the world in cutting carbon pollution. Behind the scenes, the Prime Minister was caught telling his advisors to cut the ‘green crap.’

As the results of this are felt at home and abroad, today Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd addresses Conservative Party conference desperately in need of a reset of her party’s agenda.

As clean technology companies turn their back on Britain, the government is almost entirely silent about its role at this year’s crucial climate change summit of world leaders in Paris. This silence represents a dangerous neglect of our national interests and should not pass without challenge. 

We refuse to believe, as the Chancellor frequently implies, that people in Britain have to choose between a clean, healthy environment and decent jobs and services. This is a false choice that leaves us with neither.

Whilst George Osborne tells us that we cannot afford clean energy, the very countries he points to as our competitors are piling their money and political support into low-carbon technologies. China is investingmore in clean energy than the whole of Europe. President Obama has overseen a doubling of renewable energy generation in the United States. India is planning a five fold increase in clean energy investment over the next five years.

Whilst he is stubbornly silent on the impacts of climate change, economists, health chiefs, and business leaders are lining up to tell us that if we don’t act on pollution, our economy will pay the price. Days ago the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney warned rising temperatures present huge risks to global financial security. Aviva Investors recently concluded that a minimum of $4.2 trillion of assets in the global economy will be put risk if climate change is left unchecked. Modern economists understand that prosperity and environmental sustainability are not trade-offs – they rely fundamentally upon one another. On this subject, we have a Chancellor that has not just got his morals but also his maths terribly wrong.

Britain’s absence from the debate on climate change is a symptom of this government's flawed reasoning on foreign policy. Whether in the EU or the United Nations, we pursue an isolationist, disengaged approach, in the mistaken belief that by ignoring international problems we can shield ourselves from their consequences. Yet it is global forces – whether financial de-regulation, the displacement of refugees by conflict or natural disasters, or the impacts of accelerating climate change– that now and in the future shape the everyday lives of working people in Britaing

It is because the Labour Party understands this that we are calling on the government to lead from the front at the Paris summit.  We will champion an agreement that signals once and for all the fundamental transformation of the global energy economy that is necessary to protect us from dangerous climate change.  We will also demand international rules that punish free-riders, and give British technology companies the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with those around the world. 

David Cameron was right when he said in 2006, “Tackling climate change is our social responsibility to the next generation.” Today his government must finally remember that protecting the environment is a duty, a legacy, and an economic opportunity that they neglect to all our cost.

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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