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“On the outside looking in”: Labour’s shadow Cop

With an election looming, can Labour use Cop28 to its advantage?

By Megan Kenyon

Cop28, which takes place at the end of this month in Dubai, falls at a pivotal moment for climate action in the UK and internationally. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rowed back on the UK’s net zero commitments, insisting that he was being “honest” with the British people in doing so. And the King’s Speech on 7 November included giving the green light to new oil and gas licences. Meanwhile, extreme weather events have wreaked havoc across the globe in recent months – from major storms in the UK to devastating wildfires in Greece. September 2023 was the most anomalous warm month globally since records began.

The UN climate summit also comes at a pivotal moment for the Labour front bench. In the aftermath of a mildly eventful party conference, and with an ongoing lead in the polls, Cop28 is an opportunity for the shadow climate change and net zero secretary Ed Miliband and his team of shadow ministers. The conference could be a dress rehearsal for the party if it wins next year’s election: if the vote is held ahead of Cop29 next year, it could be Miliband and his team stepping up to the negotiating table on behalf of Britain.

In practical terms, the shadow climate cabinet must get to grips with how Cop operates. Alex Sobel, the Labour MP for Leeds North West, and chair of the Net Zero All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), explains that because “this will be the last Cop before the general election” it’s really important that the shadow cabinet use this as an opportunity to “understand how Cop works” and “involve themselves in Cop discussions which intersect with their shadow brief”.

Sobel is a Cop veteran – this year will be his seventh. So is Miliband who, as Sobel points out, having been Gordon Brown’s climate change secretary, is “more experienced at Cop than any other politician of any other party in the UK, other than perhaps Alok Sharma”. This year the party will be “on the outside looking in”, but must use this year to prepare to be “on the inside looking out” at Cop29.

It can be difficult for an opposition party to cut through at the annual climate summit, however. “It’s obviously very much a convening of governments,” notes Mathew Lawrence, director of the Common Wealth think tank, “Opposition parties often find these events tend to be quite dominated by what the government is doing.” The priority for Labour should be “building relationships with key international partners and allies”, Lawrence tells Spotlight, and working out how a potential future Green Prosperity Plan might be “complimentary” to international equivalents. This is particularly the case in light of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which has become the world’s dominant example of green economic policy.

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All eyes have been on Labour to produce a British incarnation of the Inflation Reduction Act, which has channelled federal spending worth around $400bn towards renewables since it was signed into law in August 2022. So far, Labour’s answer has been the Green Prosperity Plan, which includes the creation of a new nationally owned energy company – Great British Energy – to accelerate renewables and improve the UK’s energy security. The plan, which was initially set to be backed by £28bn of borrowed investment and begin at the start of a Labour government’s time in office, was delayed by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, earlier this year. Funding is now set to build up gradually to £28bn within the first half of the parliament.

Indeed, polling reveals voters may still need some convincing of Labour’s commitment to the green transition. A survey by Ipsos Mori in July looking at public attitudes to the government’s action on climate change found less than three in ten respondents thought Labour would do a better job. Almost half of those polled said they thought the party would do “about the same” as the current government, with 15 per cent saying a Labour government would be worse than the Tories on climate change.

Setting out a clearer idea of Labour’s plans for the green transition is vital not only domestically – it is essential to improving the UK’s global image on tackling climate change. Recent announcements from the Sunak government, such as delaying the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, and the inclusion in the King’s Speech of a bill to allow new oil and gas licences in the North Sea, have damaged the UK’s international standing as a constructive force for reaching net zero.

A source close to Miliband explains that this will be the shadow cabinet’s priority at Cop. They do not plan to give more details of domestic policies. Rather, they will use the conference as an opportunity to show the international community that the party is serious about reinstating Britain’s role as a climate leader. They see Labour’s job at the conference as proving that the UK can be a confident, competent and stable partner for rebuilding the international climate consensus.

But to retain global credibility, Labour may need to set itself against the licensing of new oil and gas reserves. With major unions arguing that phasing out exploration will be bad news for workers, so far the party has said that while it will not take out any new licences it will respect existing ones. This leaves the highly controversial Rosebank oil field on track to go ahead.

A good group for the shadow cabinet to get involved in while at Cop28 is the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, says Maya Singer-Hobbs, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank. Currently co-chaired by Costa Rica and Denmark, the alliance is a coalition of governments and stakeholders working to facilitate the managed phase-out of oil and gas production. Members include France, Ireland and Portugal, but not the UK.

Entering into a dialogue with the countries currently engaged in the alliance could prove fruitful for the shadow cabinet, both optically and in terms of developing their own practical solutions for phasing out fossil fuels. “If Labour wants to form the next government,” says Singer-Hobbs, it “should use Cop28 as an opportunity to engage with countries that have made the commitment to phasing out oil and gas and ask them how they have worked out its sequencing and timing.”

A source close to the shadow energy secretary explains Labour has already mooted the creation of a Clean Power Alliance. This would bring together like-minded countries that are trying to go further and faster on the transition away from fossil fuels.

Reasserting the UK’s leadership on international development is another matter for Labour to think about – and an opportunity that Cop28 may provide. Alex Scott, climate diplomacy and geopolitics lead at the environmental think tank E3G, says it’s “really important that [Labour] are loud on the UK’s own domestic credibility, and their own net zero policy”.

Scott explains Cop28 is a chance for the party to build coalitions with other governments, and to reassure the international community that a Labour government will “fix the mistakes” the incumbent government has made.

“We really need to see [Labour] set out a vision for how the UK can become a credible global actor,” Scott says. This will partly need to be through bringing international development policy back to the “leadership levels” that the UK has had in the past, including reinstating the 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) spend on international aid.

This target was slashed in 2021 to 0.5 per cent by Sunak when he was chancellor. In early October, when asked about Labour’s position on development spending, shadow international development secretary Lisa Nandy said reinstating the 0.7 per cent spend would not be a day-one priority for a Labour government.

“Labour have been sheepish on the 0.7 per cent GNI. I can understand where that sheepishness comes from,” says Scott, “but we need to see a real vision for how they’re going to shift development policy so that it enables developing countries to sign on to the economic opportunities of the green transition.” Scott suggests Cop28 is the perfect place to share this vision.

A conversation will need to be had around “who’s got the solution? Where is the funding coming from? And how quickly can it be delivered?” Sobel says.

In Madagascar, for instance, where Sobel has done some work in his role as chair of the Net Zero APPG, “one of the issues around deforestation is people literally chopping down trees for firewood”. He explains that a key question for Cop28 will be working with developing countries to offer support around the transfer of new technologies and techniques to tackle climate change. This could include the transfer of green technologies to places like Madagascar, including “solar stoves” to allow communities to cook food without needing to fell trees and use timber.

Indeed, another key discussion set to take place at Cop28 will be around the new loss and damages fund. This pot of money will help cover the cost of climate-related damage that cannot be adapted to or mitigated against. A blueprint plan for the fund – which was first agreed last November at Cop27 in Egypt – was drawn up during a two-day meeting earlier this month under UN guidance. It will need to be voted on by countries during Cop28 in order to be fully adopted.

Singer-Hobbs tells Spotlight that seeing Labour commit to a loss and damages fund if it forms the next government would be significant. “It would be really powerful…because it would show a commitment to the just transition,” Singer-Hobbs says.

Sobel agrees, saying that Labour should use the discussions to work out where it should place itself on this issue. “This year, the details [of the fund] are going to be thrashed out,” he adds, “so where should Labour place itself? Where is the best place to support the negotiations? And what should our position be, as differentiated from the current government?”

Labour is keen to use this year’s conference to distinguish itself from the current Conservative government. A party spokesperson pointed out that last year, “Sunak was shamed into going to Cop27 by the torrent of disbelief that he would fail to turn up. “In the year since, he’s doubled down on his failures – underlining both at home and abroad that this prime minister is not in the business of showing climate leadership on the world stage.”

They added that while Cop28 is “of course about tackling the worsening climate crisis”, it is also “about energy bills, energy security, and jobs here at home”. A Labour spokesperson told Spotlight: “The only way to cut bills and make Britain energy independent is to go all out for clean power like solar and wind, which are now many times cheaper than gas.”

With Cop28 kicking off soon it remains to be seen whether Miliband and his shadow team will use this opportunity to their advantage.

[See also: Who in Labour gets climate and nature?]

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