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Labour’s climate plans are under more scrutiny than ever

The party’s net zero programme will involve a political balancing act.

By Megan Kenyon

Shortly after he began to announce the Labour Party’s long-awaited manifesto, Keir Starmer was interrupted. Unravelling a banner which read “youth deserve better”, a young protester from the left-wing campaign group Green New Deal Rising began to lambast the Labour leader, claiming his party’s plans for the climate are the “same old Tory policies”. She was swiftly removed by security.

On the cusp of government – according to all and any polls – Labour’s plans to tackle climate change have never been under more scrutiny. And the party has set its sights high: the next parliament, which will likely run until 2029, could end shortly before its ambitious target to achieve wholly clean power by 2030. With temperatures rising at an almost uncontrollable rate, the next five years will be a critical period for global emissions reduction.

While much of the detail of the party’s plan to tackle climate change was already well-known, the manifesto launch clarified several key details. The party had originally committed to back its programme with £28bn per year in investment. This was tossed on the scrap heap in early February, after much back and forth over whether it was sustainable given the rocky economic inheritance Starmer and his government are expected to receive.

But Labour’s green prosperity plan has several key prongs that have remained. First, announced at the party’s annual conference in 2021, is the creation of a new publicly owned energy company, GB Energy, and a £7.3bn national wealth fund to invest in emerging industries such as green steel and carbon capture and storage. Labour have confirmed that it anticipates its green plans will help to create “650,000 good green jobs for our country”, which will be “funded by a windfall tax on oil and gas giants who have earned record profits at the expense of the British people”. The shadow climate change and net zero secretary, Ed Miliband said today that the plans are “the most ambitious climate and energy plans in British history”.

It is unsurprising, then, that as one of the more ambitious aspects of the party’s plans for government, these have been some of the most closely inspected policies in Labour’s arsenal. And it has received some particularly harsh criticism from traditional allies of the party. This week, in a final attempt to halt the inclusion of Labour’s clean power 2030 commitment in the official manifesto, the GMB union passed a motion at its annual congress to persuade the party to drop it.

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[See also: Labour’s manifesto is quietly radical]

Labour finds itself trying to maintain a tricky balancing act: it is urged to take radical action to cease the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels, and cautioned by those who hope to protect the thousands of jobs which will need to change as part of this transition. And the fight won’t be over if and when Labour takes office. During last week’s Scottish leaders’ debate, First Minister John Swinney confirmed that under his leadership the SNP would ditch its previous opposition to new oil and gas licences. Swinney has also been vocally critical of Labour’s plans for the North Sea, claiming the latter threatens to turn Aberdeen into an “industrial wasteland”.

The Green Party, on the other hand – who look likely to be a pressurising force on the left of a Labour government – have criticised the party for not going far enough. Speaking to the New Statesman at an event in central London on Tuesday evening prior to the manifesto’s launch, the former Green MP, Caroline Lucas, was critical of Labour’s hesitancy around the controversial Rosebank oil field. “I’m concerned that they haven’t said they will pull out of Rosebank,” she said. “When it comes to climate, it’s massively important that fossil fuels remain in the ground.”

Subtle differences in climate policies previously trailed by Labour and included in today’s manifesto suggest that Miliband and his shadow climate team are alive to this issue. Rather than maintaining the language of an outright ban on new oil and gas licences, as previous announcements had implied, Labour’s manifesto said it will “ensure a fair and responsible transition in the North Sea” – evidently an attempt to pacify union opposition. However, in essence the policy remains the same. Indeed, the final text of the manifesto did not include any plans to pull out of Rosebank – though it did reiterate the party’s commitment to stopping the new coal mine, which is to begin development in Whitehaven, Cumbria.

This manifesto launch seals the green prosperity plan as a core party of Labour’s programme for government. If it is to win a majority, it must quickly establish a way of simultaneously supporting its industrial heartlands and accelerating the green transition. But the politics around this issue won’t cease on 5 July, and however Labour proceed it will face intense pressure from both sides.

[See also: Chris Stark: New oil and gas licences are a “total waste of time”]

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