The 2019 UK general election matters because the climate emergency means that the next decade is critical for the future of humanity. Only a Labour government can really turn things around, not just in the UK, but globally. This may sound exaggerated, but it’s true. Let me explain.
While flooding has affected people in Yorkshire during the election period, look further afield and many millions are suffering the impacts of catastrophic floods in Central and East Africa. Fires have raged in Australia and things will get a lot worse until humans stabilise Earth’s rapidly changing climate. To do that means carbon emissions need to decline to zero. Fast.
Pursuing policies to limit warming to 1.5℃, as the Paris Agreement mandates, is a two part process. Stage one is to halve global emissions by 2030. Stage two is to eliminate the other half by 2050. Getting the world to zero emissions is extremely difficult as it means every sector of every country needs to get to zero. We can still pollute, but every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted will need to be immediately captured again, giving a net impact of zero emissions.
A serious plan
Finally, after 30-plus years of scientists explaining the problem, a major political party of a major economy has a serious plan for part one of the process. After wrangling between grassroots activists and trade unions, the Labour Manifesto pledges that the “substantial majority” of UK emissions will be eliminated by 2030. This isn’t bluster, as there is serious investment planned across electricity production (more wind and solar), buildings (retrofitting all UK houses to high efficiency standards), transport (investment in buses, only electric cars sales from 2030), and heavy industry (research and development into hydrogen and carbon capture technology), to name a few sectors.
Crucially, this would be driven by those who control the finances of the country. A new Sustainable Investment Board would bring together the chancellor, business secretary and Bank of England governor to oversee and co-ordinate these major investments. A National Investment Bank with £250 billion allocated for decarbonising the economy provides serious funds. And climate and environmental impacts will be included in the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, so that the cost of not acting will be factored into every government decision.
Labour are calling it a Green Industrial Revolution. And it would be. It is a far-reaching set of policies and investments befitting the scale of the problem.
Tory plan ‘lacks ambition’
By comparison the Conservative Party manifesto lacks ambition and seriousness. Capital spending on climate – broadly conceived – is just £20 billion. There is no overarching strategy to reach net zero. As the independent analysts, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said of the whole manifesto, “If a single Budget had contained all these tax and spending proposals we would have been calling it modest. As a blueprint for five years in government the lack of significant policy action is remarkable.”
While the Conservatives have a net zero target of 2050 and official UK emissions have dropped by 43% from 1990 levels, most of the reduction has come from the power sector, and the low-hanging fruit of switching from coal-fired electricity generation to gas and renewables. Beyond this, their record over the past decade in government has been poor – emissions from transport, buildings and agriculture have not declined over recent years.
In 2019, the government’s own independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, said that only one of 25 policy recommendations had been delivered, and the UK is on track to miss its binding interim carbon budget for 2023 to 2027.
The stakes couldn’t be higher
Of course, UK emissions are just 1% of the world’s total, so does it matter what the UK does? It does. First, because every country needs to get to net zero emissions. Second, as the fifth largest economy in the world, large and sustained reductions in emissions across all sectors simultaneously would become a beacon to other countries to learn from the UK and reduce their emissions more quickly. Third, Labour would use £4 billion of new overseas development funds help countries leap-frog the fossil fuel age.
Finally, geopolitics matters. The world is gripped by right-wing populists who are often hostile to tackling climate change. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro abandoned hosting this years’ UN climate talks, while Donald Trump plans to pull out of the Paris Agreement. Fearful inward-looking nationalism means that the internationalism necessary to tackle climate change is being eroded.
The antidote to the rising right-wing populism that Brexit and Boris Johnson are part of, is a Labour government with a Green Industrial Revolution at its heart. And just as Brexit spurred the Trump campaign, a win for Labour would increase the chances of the Democrats in the US reaching office and pursuing a similar Green New Deal. The tide would be turning towards deploying the tools of the state to reshape the economy to seriously tackle climate change.
Scientists working on climate often say some form of transformation of society is needed to tackle climate change. Here’s a rare chance to lever serious resources to do just that. Of course, supporting any political party is a major compromise, especially with our voting system.
When it comes to the environment, you can’t beat the Greens, but they can’t form the next government. The big prize is to grasp the chance to turn things around. So, I won’t just be voting this election. I’ll be out knocking on doors to canvas for Labour. It’s the least I can do. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Simon Lewis has received funding from Natural Environment Research Council, the Royal Society, the European Union, the Leverhulme Trust, the Centre for International Forestry, National Parks Agency of Gabon, Microsoft Research, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. He is not a member of the Labour Party but has volunteered as a canvasser at this election.