What would a Labour Government do about climate change?

Tuesday 2nd January 2018




Dr Alan Whitehead, Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change and Labour MP for Southampton

The 2008 Climate Change Act, passed by the last Labour Government, sets out a clear target for Britain in its contribution to combatting ruinous climate change across the world.

The Act says that the UK is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent, over their 1990 levels, by 2050, in energy, industry, transport, heating and insulating our homes, agriculture and in many other areas. In all of those, we will need to make the changes through legislation, financial incentives and behaviour change that will allow us to live similar lives to those who lived today.

The Committee on Climate Change, charged under the Act with producing the five year “carbon budgets” that will progressively limit and reduce our emissions totals, holds the ring for that progress. Parliament is supposed to adopt each carbon budget as it comes out, and then produce a plan to show how the outline requirements of each budget are to be met.

That is the mechanism that Labour introduced to fight climate change in Britain – and remains committed to achieve. I have had my concerns in the period after the plans were introduced; for instance, would the next government stand by those commitments?

To date, they have been adopted, and plans have been produced. We are on target to meet the terms of the first three carbon budgets, to 2022. But what about the next two? The fourth, up to 2028, and the crucial fifth, up to2032, by which time we will either be properly locked into practices which radically decarbonise our country, or we will be so far off target that it will be very difficult to catch up again in the short period that remains.

We are not on target, on present known carbon saving measures, to meet the terms of the fourth budget, and certainly not the fifth. That means that for all the progress that has been made with low carbon electricity, for example, we are still grievously lagging on heat and transport and in agriculture.

And in some of those areas, intentions for carbon budgets have been sabotaged by government acts; recently, for example, in effectively outlawing the development of onshore wind.

More recently, and after a considerable delay, we have had the government’s response to the fifth carbon budget: the “Clean Growth Plan”, which contains some good policy ideas but falls down on two counts. Firstly, when the effect of present and new polices are added up, it fails to show how we can reach the level of emissions required by the budget because, as the report itself acknowledges, in 2032 we will over emit by about nine per cent above our target. And secondly, even in terms of the policies that the plan does outline, it does not indicate, remotely enough, financial support to make them happen; for example, we are supposed to get Carbon Capture and Storage back on track for about £100 million of investment.

The vital task of the next Labour Government is, therefore, to get us firmly back on track within the terms of the mechanisms that Labour first set out. We have to be able, through our policy plans, to say, hand on heart, that we can reach our carbon budget targets, and not leave the ever more difficult task of completing carbon reduction to next time around.

That means more radical plans to fully decarbonise electricity production: to tackle the decarbonisation of heat through substituting heating gas in homes with the introduction of low carbon ‘green gases’, with substantial and funded programmes of home and industrial energy efficiency, and with a revived and expanded programme of carbon capture and storage not only for energy production but also for energy intensive industries. It means not only tackling the future of domestic vehicles through electrification but dealing with industrial and commercial vehicles and logistics, too. It means bending our industrial strategy for the future towards the manufacturing, supply chains and skills that will be entailed in producing and supplying for the permanent low carbon economy of the future.

As the time comes for a new Labour Government to be elected, I am relieved that the consensus on the need to make the Climate Change Act work has not been broken. But now we need to get serious not just about the ends but the means. And that will be the contribution of the next Labour Government to the imperative of fighting and, eventually, overcoming the devastating climate changes that are already upon us.

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