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Theresa May says Britain leads on climate change, but Tory policy falls far too short

Theresa May’s environmental rhetoric shows she is listening to public opinion, finally.

Theresa May can’t save Britain from Brexit - but she has attempted to revive the Conservative youth vote by promising that she will help save the planet.

Writing in the Guardian today, she boasted that Britain has “always led the way” on cutting emmissions and protecting the environment.

She also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to phasing out coal power that doesn't deploy carbon capture by 2025, announced a summit on the future of zero emmissions vehicles, and pledged £140m of new funding for poorer countries hit by the effects of climate change. She described helping the latter as a “moral imperative”.

May's return to David Cameron's hug-a-husky rhetoric is a wise move if the party hopes to win over the youth vote. Polling from Conservative think tank Bright Blue has shown climate change is the issue 18-28 year-olds most want politicians to discuss.

Yet are these latest gestures more hot air than hard policy?

Far from leading on the issue, it would appear the Conservatives are simply following where public opinion has already forged ahead: 82 per cent now support the use of renewable energy, a figure that increases with each assessment.

It’s a similar story in the business community. At today's One Planet Summit in Paris, the World Bank announced that it will not finance oil and gas exploration and production after 2019. Over 200 top investors have also called on the big carbon polluting firms to do more to tackle climate-related risks.

In contrast, the UK’s global “leadership” on the issue stuttered to a halt after David Cameron cut renewable subsidies and sold off the Green Investment Bank (something the National Audit Office now says was done at too low a price).

In the government’s most recent budget, the carbon price was frozen at current levels, as was fuel duty, and no new funding was announced for low-carbon electricity till at least 2025. Neither was much detail given on how the UK’s intends to meet its legally binding carbon budgets.

Green MP and co-leader Caroline Lucas fears that the Tories still have a long way to go in seriously tackling the climate threat. “Not only do Ministers continue to back fracking, against the wishes of local communities, but they hand vast subsidies to gas and oil too,” she told the New Statesman.

"So while we of course celebrate wins like the phasing out of coal, we're yet to be convinced of the Government's commitment to green issues. If they're serious about curtailing climate breakdown ministers will both commit to immediate support for renewables to enable them to take off and become the hugely successful industries of tomorrow, and double down on efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground."

Whether further policy announcements will follow May’s warm words remains to be seen. 

The government should be congratulated on its co-leadership of Powering Past Coal Alliance, which today saw new countries and businesses sign up to phasing out traditional coal power. But boasting about the UK’s falling emissions without mentioning that global emissions are set to rise to a record high this year, misses the bigger picture and Britain's role within it. As President Macron more responsibly put it in his speech to the summit this afternoon, "We are losing the battle". 

If May truly hopes to re-set her relationship with the young, she must first own her party's past mistakes.

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

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.