Jeremy Corbyn stood out as the greenest of the Labour leadership candidates. He has even been called a grape: red on the outside and green on the inside.
But will Corbyn succeed in making the environment a central part of the ‘new politics’ that he is seeking to build – in a way that Miliband never achieved? Will the shadow cabinet team that Corbyn appointed stand up to the vested fossil fuel and agri-business interests that have dominated the energy and environment policies of successive governments? And should we even want a green Labour Party – will it polarise the issue and toxify it for the Tories?
Jeremy Corbyn’s environment manifesto pledged his commitment to phasing out coal, banning fracking, supporting renewable energy, and protecting nature including banning bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides. In fact, of the top 10 policies that Friends of the Earth called on the new Government and the Labour leadership candidates to adopt, Corbyn committed to support all of them.
Corbyn was criticised for saying that coal mines could be re-opened in south Wales if they could be zero-carbon with clean burn technology. However carbon capture and storage technology is not commercially viable and he since clarified that he supports the phase out of coal in our energy system by 2023, and is against open cast coal mining.
One concern expressed is that Corbyn is so green he will polarise the politics of the environment. It is right that we need all politicians to be part of the shift to a low carbon economy and to restore nature – crucial advances from the 1956 Clean Air Act to the 2008 the Climate Change Act were passed with support from all parties. It was Margaret Thatcher who first raised alarm bells about climate change. Politicians from all parties are saying no to fracking in their constituencies.
But it certainly doesn’t work to have an Opposition that keeps quiet on the environment – or supports some of the worst policies, as Labour (but not Jeremy Corbyn) did when it voted for a legal requirement to ‘maximise the extraction of fossil fuels’ in the recent Infrastructure Bill.
The government has unleashed a concerted attack on environment policy since the election. The list is astonishing: ending support for solar energy (and forcing solar companies to fold) to allowing some farmers to use ‘banned’ bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides; scrapping energy efficiency standards for new homes to ending the home insulation scheme; making tax on the cleanest cars the same as the most polluting, and proposing to frack through drinking water aquifers and under national parks.
There has hardly been a more important time for the Opposition to step up on the environment. There are some early environmental tests that will signal how green Corbyn’s leadership is, and what effect it will have on other opposition parties and the government?
There are imminent decisions on fracking in Parliament and by local councils. In line with Jeremy Corbyn’s position, Labour should now make clear its complete opposition to fracking because it is incompatible with tackling climate change and is a threat to local health and the environment. In November, Labour MPs should vote against outrageous proposals in the Infrastructure Act to allow drilling through drinking water aquifers and under national parks. Local Labour councillors should vote against fracking wherever it is threatened, such as in Ryedale, North Yorkshire.
There is an immediate threat to solar power with the government proposing to slash the feed in tariff by 87 per cent from 1 January 2016. The solar industry has grown to 35,000 jobs and contributes £33 billion to our economy, and is responsible for 1 million tonnes of carbon thanks to carbon already installed. Already solar companies are closing and jobs are being lost with 22,000 jobs estimated to be at risk, and the government admits that 1.6 million tonnes of carbon emissions will be caused. Labour must use every opportunity to push the Government to rethink and to support local solar companies – the consultation proposing this cut should be withdrawn and re-issued following proper discussion with the industry.
The government has authorised the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in some oil seed rape planting this autumn, which Friends of the Earth is challenging in the courts. Labour opposes neonicitonoid pesticides and must use every parliamentary lever to hold the executive to account.
Lisa Nandy as shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change, and Kerry McCarthy shadowing Defra have big challenges with formidably powerful and organised fossil fuel and agri-business interests dominating policy.
George Osborne is also increasingly seizing formal control of key decisions, such as energy priorities, for the Treasury.
For Corbyn to really set about renewing politics fit for this and future generations, the environment must be at the heart of the vision. Because in the end – as the threats to the solar industry illustrate – protecting our climate and natural world will also protect people and the economy.