Labour must go bold on the climate with the Green New Deal

Zarah Sultana

Next week, Britain hosts COP26, a gathering of historic importance. World leaders will meet to address the biggest threat facing humanity: the climate emergency. Some people are greeting the summit with optimism. But it’s difficult to hold out much hope for Glasgow. Like so many other young people, I have already too often seen big promises on the climate be followed by (at best) meagre action.

I am from a generation that grew up to the sound of climate warnings. Before I was born, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had identified human activity as the cause of the planet quickly getting hotter. By the time I was seven years old, it said we were on course to experience the fastest warming in 10,000 years, with “irreversible damage” to ecosystems. Fast-forward 20 years, and the IPCC was warning that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” was needed to avert catastrophe.

But our politicians have refused to take the necessary action. Since the IPCC first met more than three decades ago, CO2 emissions have risen by more than 60%. And now, the climate emergency is here, with Britain experiencing some of its worst flooding in our recent history, and forest fires, droughts and torrential rain devastating countries across the world, hitting the Global South hardest of all.

If we are to prevent climate calamity, politicians cannot delay any longer. And as hosts of COP26, our government has a special responsibility to show leadership on the world stage. That means embarking on the bold, transformative change necessary to rapidly decarbonise and keep temperatures below the 1.5°C mandated by the 2016 Paris Agreement.

But that is not what the Conservative government is doing. Far from it. In his Budget, the Chancellor slashed taxes on domestic flights, making a mockery of the government’s climate commitments. At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, I asked Boris Johnson whether he would pay back the £1.3m donated to his party and Tory MPs from fossil fuel companies, interest groups and climate deniers since 2019, and refuse to take a penny more from companies that are burning our planet. It was a simple question – yes or no – but he refused to answer.

Last week, the government published the long-awaited Net Zero Strategy, a document heavy on rhetoric but almost non-existent in substance. The few solutions it proposed rely on technologies yet to be developed, while its aim – net zero by 2050 – is itself a death sentence for millions across the globe.

But there is an alternative. Last week, alongside colleagues including Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis, I co-sponsored the Green New Deal bill, proposed legislation that has been developed in conjunction with trade unions and campaign groups, experts and activists.

The bill sets out a path for rapid decarbonisation, aiming for net zero by 2030. But this isn’t so-called “green austerity”, where the majority are asked to make huge sacrifices, even though it is the richest 1% who produce twice the amount of carbon as the world’s poorest 50%. This bill is the opposite of that.

The Green New Deal bill has social justice at its heart, putting the interests of many ahead of the greed of the few. It would see a massive state-led programme of investment in green industries, creating millions of well-paid, unionised jobs. Low-carbon sectors like care and education would be revolutionised, finally getting the funding they need, enriching our communities.

Transport would be transformed, with fares abolished to promote sustainable travel – acknowledging that people won’t opt for public transport over private vehicles so long as it remains expensive, disjointed and underfunded.

Key industries – from mail and rail to energy and water – would be brought into public ownership, recognising the reality that only a democratic, planned approach to the economy can decarbonise society at the scale and speed we need.

The fossil fuel industry would be wound down and repurposed, with the companies responsible for burning our planet brought into public ownership to ensure a just transition and a job guarantee for all impacted workers.

Trade unions would be empowered to place the interests of working people front and centre of this process, with Thatcherite anti-union laws swept away. Why? Because a just transition is impossible so long as decision-making power remains left at the whims of the market and hoarded in corporate boardrooms.

And the Green New Deal bill would tax the rich, raising income tax on the highest earners and introducing a wealth tax on the super-rich. This commitment to social justice isn’t an optional extra to averting climate catastrophe. It’s a precondition for its success. It is only by taking on the wealthy few who profit from environmental destruction and promising a better future for the majority that a Green New Deal can win the support needed to change our country.

The bill recognises that tweaking the system isn’t enough. The measures included in it seek to fundamentally transform the economy, acknowledging that the climate emergency gives no room for moderation. After 40 years of Thatcherism reigning supreme in British politics, the communities Labour represents deserve nothing less than wholesale change.

But this is a lesson that the Labour leadership is ignoring. I was elected on a manifesto that rose to the challenge of the climate crisis, pledging an ambitious Green Industrial Revolution. Since then, the need for bold answers has grown as climate breakdown has accelerated. But the leadership is going backwards, recently abandoning a commitment to bring energy into public ownership, despite its huge popularity and centrality in cutting carbon.

Failure on the climate emergency spells disaster for my generation and for people across the world. We grew up knowing that this crisis was real and that its importance would only grow as we got older. A refusal to rise to this challenge will not quickly be forgotten.

With climate disaster looming, COP26 around the corner, and a Conservative government still beholden to the fossil fuel industry, Labour must show leadership on the climate emergency and provide a hopeful vision to transform Britain. There’s a ready-made plan to do it. It’s called the Green New Deal bill.

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