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Labour can win by telling a better story about climate action

The opposition must focus on economic resilience and stay out of “loss and damage” culture wars.

By Sam Alvis

“Eco-reparations” was how the Daily Mail spun Ed Miliband’s support for “loss and damage” payments to poorer countries affected by climate change. Loss and damage, at the heart of this year’s Cop27 UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is a thorny issue for developed nations. Few leaders have made concrete pledges for those countries whose economies are already suffering from the impacts of global warming.

There are two interrelated issues for this reticence. The first is a continued misunderstanding or climate change and its economic impacts. The second is how to then communicate that to voters. These issues are not unique to “loss and damage”, they have plagued climate policy for years. Progressives need to tell a better story of sound investment.

Action on climate change has traditionally been pitted against the economy. It was seen as something we could only do “when the sun was shining”. This was one of the reasons why David Cameron felt comfortable taking the chop to “green crap” in 2013, while others, such as the former chancellor Philip Hammond, have argued against the supposed exorbitant cost of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. But the economics of this argument don’t stack up.

Rather than something we can only do with a strong economy, investment to address climate change generates growth. Clean energy like offshore wind is nine times cheaper than gas. The more of our energy that comes from cheap domestic renewables, the less money wasted importing gas. Energy costs also pass through to other goods or services. Cheaper production for the same outcomes means higher productivity and therefore economic growth.

The same can be said for the shift to heat pumps or electric vehicles, which use less energy for the same results as boilers or combustion engines. And that’s before counting wider benefits to productivity, like better physical and mental health from increased green space, or reduced congestion from more people walking and cycling.

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The costs of inaction also far outweigh the costs of investing now. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that if there were no further reduction in emissions public debt would rise to 289 per cent of GDP. For perspective, the Covid-19 pandemic added 23 per cent to national debt. Meanwhile, climate impacts are already hurting the UK economy, whether in cancelled trains and increased sick days from this summer’s extreme heat or the £333m spent dealing with flooding impacts in winter 2019-20.

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For the UK, lower long-term costs are one way to justify investing now. The other is something Boris Johnson, who is roaming Sharm el-Sheikh this week, knows well – boosterism. In the UK net zero will create jobs and high-value industries. These jobs are highly skilled, and because we’re reducing imports they are new, rather than replacing existing roles. There is a story to tell for all parts of the country, whether its hydrogen in the Yorkshire, clean steel in Wales or sustainable finance in Edinburgh.

But these arguments will haunt progressives who struggled to oppose austerity in the 2010s. High upfront costs for infrastructure will have to come in part though government borrowing.

Public support for climate action is motivated by a desire to avoid adverse climate impacts, protect future generations and see global leadership from the UK. The case for spending, while popular, is more challenging, however. Voters want more tangible benefits and fiscal responsibility – avoiding any wasteful spending, especially when borrowing is mentioned.

That means that alongside an argument for green investment leading to new jobs and a growing economy, progressives also need a story of value for money. Mechanisms to safeguard spending, like independent oversight and partnering with business to boost private investment, will be essential. At the Labour Party conference this year Keir Starmer emphasised “green” growth to counter Liz Truss’s pursuit of growth at all costs. But with Rishi Sunak now Prime Minister, the Labour leader will need to lean into green fiscal responsibility, telling a story of climate action that makes the UK economy more resilient.

What does this mean for loss and damage? It’s clear that after Truss trashed the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence, parts of the right will look for new dividing lines. Reframing “loss and damage” as “reparations” is an attempt to drag it into a culture war, which is harder territory for Labour.

The case is clear, however. The UK has a leading role to play in tackling climate change. We are investing to avoid future costs and bring a greener, fairer economy. Other countries with their cities underwater and their farmland on fire are already facing the costs. Without our support now they will never be able to take the actions they need to safeguard green growth nationally and globally.

[See also: Labour to hire attack dogs “willing to get hands dirty” as Starmer prepares for election]