Climate change is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Last month, as the activist movement Extinction Rebellion staged 11 days of demonstrations in central London, the 16-year-old Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg addressed MPs in Westminster. Meanwhile, David Attenborough has lent his support to school climate strikes and Momentum has launched a fossil fuel divestment campaign. This week the Labour Party announced it would be forcing a vote in the Commons to make Britain the first state to declare a “climate emergency”.
It is about time that British politicians started to take climate change seriously. Adding up total cumulative emissions since 1750 puts Britain as the fifth-largest polluter on the planet, after the US, China, the former USSR and Germany. Having paved the way for widespread fossil fuel use during the Industrial Revolution, Britain now has a duty to chart a course towards a greener future.
Labour is proposing a green industrial revolution. It has committed to achieving net zero emissions before 2050 – by raising the proportion of energy coming from low-carbon or renewable sources, building zero-carbon homes, and delivering mass retrofitting and insulation programmes for existing homes, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The green industrial revolution is supposed to be the UK’s answer to the Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal in the US, but at the moment it is less ambitious. The Green New Deal includes commitments to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy and a zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, as well as ensuring all US citizens can access adequate health care, housing and clean water.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world has to reach net zero emissions by 2050 to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. If we fail, large swathes of the Earth will be uninhabitable. As one of the largest historical emitters, it is our responsibility to lead the way on climate change. The green industrial revolution should look to President Roosevelt’s original 1930s New Deal. At its peak, the US was spending 40 per cent of GDP on his stimulus programme.
The money could be used to green Britain’s transport and energy infrastructure and support businesses to transition away from non-renewables. Such widespread social and economic change would match that of the 18th and 19th centuries. But the Industrial Revolution was premised upon the exploitation of labour at home and abroad, with devastating consequences for both workers in the UK and those experiencing the brutality of colonial rule.
The green industrial revolution must involve a fair transition towards a low-carbon economy, in which the costs of adjustment are placed on those most able to bear them. High levels of investment would create jobs and boost wages – this would raise living standards, but only if accompanied by the strengthening of trade unions and the improvement of public services free at the point of use. Taxes on wealth would have to be increased, which would require a clampdown on tax avoidance and controls on capital mobility.
If the state provides private businesses with support for decarbonisation, it should also take an ownership stake in these firms to ensure that the gains from green growth are shared throughout the economy. This equity should be placed in a sovereign wealth fund, which could be used to support decarbonisation in the UK and around the world.
This year, Britain is co-chairing the board of the Green Climate Fund – an international development bank created in 2010 to give the global South a voice in determining how investment funds are spent. We should put more capital into the bank, and use our position to support others to adopt their own versions of the Green New Deal. We also need to start building international organisations outside the orbit of broken institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, which prohibit such large levels of state intervention.
Each of these policies runs counter to a capitalist system that places profit before all other human goods. But even those who do not identify as socialists may soon realise that a green industrial revolution is our only option.
This article appears in the 02 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal