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12 August 2014

Labour is right: it’s the government’s duty to protect people from climate change

New Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss ahd her Lib Dem coalition partners need to be clear on how they will better protect Britain from climate change.

By Guy Shrubsole

As torrential rains brought by Hurricane Bertha made yesterday the wettest day of the year yet, Labour made some welcome new commitments on climate change and flood defence policy.

Labour’s shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle, declared that “no sensible government can govern in these challenging times without putting tackling climate change at the core of what they do. Ed Miliband, Caroline Flint and I all understand that.”

Her speech outlined a new willingness to champion the role of government in protecting the public from damaging environmental change. Contrasting the coalition’s record on climate change with Labour’s approach, she stated: “The government believe in cutting the size of the state and letting people fend for themselves… [Labour] believes strongly in the duty of government to protect people, whether it be from floods caused by a changing climate or the threat of air pollution and to protect our environment.”

This is an important principle to establish. The coalition’s new flood insurance system, Flood Re, is designed to remove support for flood risk homes over time, and seeks to individualise risk by compelling those households most at risk to install protection for their own properties. Yet flood defences are a classic instance of “public good” spending – by pooling funds, we protect many households more efficiently and fairly than expecting everyone to effectively dig their own moats. After all, climate change is, in the words of Lord Stern, “the greatest market failure the world has seen”, with a clear case for government intervention.

Also welcome is Labour’s fresh commitment to “produce a new plan for climate change adaptation, to replace Owen Paterson’s discredited National Adaptation Programme (NAP) which is not fit for purpose.” The existing National Adaptation Programme dodges the question of how climate change will affect Britain if we continue to burn fossils fuels at current rates, settling instead to cross its fingers and hope that we stay under 2 degrees of global warming. We all hope for that – but it’s the job of government to prepare the country for the worst, not simply hope for the best. With the next NAP due for 2018 at the earliest, a more urgent assessment of the climate change risks facing the UK is also needed.

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A third development is how Labour is now explicitly linking UK climate change impacts with government policy on emissions cuts and international climate diplomacy. This is spot-on – after all, the best form of insurance we’ve got against worse flooding in future is to make progress on cutting carbon domestically and globally. Maria Eagle’s speech pledged to “make achieving a global deal in Paris to limit emissions a top priority”. The UN climate talks in Paris in December 2015 must deliver an equitable, binding, global deal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and holding global temperature rise well below 2 degrees.

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Lastly, Maria Eagle set out Labour’s position on flood defence spending, stating that if Labour won the election it would “re-prioritise flooding as a core responsibility of Defra… As part of the Armitt Review, we will establish an Independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, which will include flood protection.” Again, this is encouraging – though it falls short of explicitly committing to invest in line with rising flood risk due to climate change. As the Committee on Climate Change has stated – and as Maria Eagle’s speech pointed out – government underinvestment in flood defences plus climate change equals more homes put at flood risk: 82,500 homes over the next five years, to be precise.

Yesterday’s announcements by Labour raise the bar for the new Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss and the Liberal Democrats to be clear on how they will better protect Britain from climate change. The central question for all the parties remains: when push comes to shove, will they commit to stopping over 80,000 homes from slipping into flood risk during the next Parliament – or stand by as rising tides wash over our crumbling defences?