How Labour can fight for climate justice – three priorities for the next year

Tom Hayes
© Diana Vucane/Shutterstock.com

COP26 ended in the only way that it could earlier this month. On the one hand, it was a historic turning point, making real progress in important areas. At the same time, the Climate Pact was a big failure. It just doesn’t go anywhere far enough to meet the scale of the climate emergency. I was up in Glasgow, representing my council’s science-based plans to become a zero-carbon council by 2030 and a zero-carbon city by 2040, and it was clear that the summit and deal were better than critics claimed yet also worse than its cheerleaders boasted.

What next for Labour on the climate crisis? Key is how we help to achieve climate justice in a way that answers the two questions we must address to win the general election: 1) how will we improve people’s lives, and 2) what kind of society are we trying to create?

First, the gap between where we are now and limiting warming to 1.5°C has narrowed, and there are ways for the gap to go on being narrowed, faster and faster, because of Glasgow. There is an opportunity each year for governments to be subjected to pressure to revisit and strengthen net zero goals and decarbonisation plans. Countries will return to talks in 2022 and are expected to strengthen their plans for cutting emissions.

This is a golden opportunity for Labour. In parliaments, assemblies, and town halls, in our branches and constituency parties, fanning out across neighbourhoods and grassroots NGOs, Labour must plan. As socialists, we must organise, strengthen and cohere a movement to ramp up pressure on government leading up to 2022. We must pinpoint sectors we want to clean up and name the emissions reductions we want to accelerate. We must be focused on how we clean our energy, decarbonise heat and transport, and create high-paying green jobs.

Second, climate finance and adaptation funding increased, but the sums raised from rich countries are too low to help developing nations transition to clean energy and prepare for more extreme weather. This is a failure that falls onto the shoulders of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor responsible for negotiating it, who also undermined his government’s summitry by cutting passenger duty on domestic flights one week before COP26 opened.

So much progress will depend on additional funding going to the Global South. We need a new internationalism that proposes new and sustainable responses to the problems faced by poorer countries. As we develop policies on trade, aid, debt relief, climate, education and development financing, Labour must work alongside and build up civil society networks.

This isn’t innovative or new – it’s what we did during the ‘Make Poverty History’ and ‘Live 8’ campaigns of 2005 – and it can allow significant international pressure to be placed on less enthusiastic countries. Unlike 2005, we are in opposition, but that means Labour can work with civil society networks to push the UK government and other governments to move in the right direction.

This really matters. The millions of people living the traumas of the climate crisis will see the Glasgow Pact as a slap in the face. When their leaders go back to them, they will be forced to say that the major countries of the world did not deal with the damage caused by the climate crisis because they didn’t care enough. With a new intellectual framework for our internationalism that connects to our proud political history, Labour can help to turn this situation around leading up to 2022.

Third, and most crucial of all, the era of coal is ending. The enemy has finally been given a name and fossil fuel producers have been put on notice. Despite watered-down language, the Glasgow Pact is the first COP agreement to mention coal power (even if it did end up being in terms of “phase down” rather than “phase out”) and “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies.

For this commitment to make a difference, the biggest polluters – China, India and the United States – must honour promises to zero out their emissions in the next decades. While COP26 has provided the clear signal that a transition to clean technologies will accelerate, the major countries of the world, working in partnership with international businesses, need to properly invest in clean energy generation and storage.

The future is already here. We already have some of the tools and the technologies to get to zero. British inventors, innovators and industrialists are leading the way. Energy Superhub Oxford is the world’s largest hybrid battery, unlocking such benefits as the UK’s largest EV charging hub. Society just needs to deploy our clean energy solutions fast enough.

As a party, we should be shining a spotlight on our cities and regions, where Labour is in power and making a difference, working to create a clean energy future. As a labour and co-operative movement, we can propose plans for new clean energy generation that is publicly- and community-owned, scalable across the UK and providing a model for the world, as well as city-sized clean energy storage.

Momentum is building; public concern is strong and growing. Voters of all parties are increasingly worried, demanding action, and impatient about the pace of change. As a movement, we can win votes from other parties to win the next general election, but together we must use these years of opposition forced on us to make a difference.

Progress at COP26 was possible thanks to the power of people raising their voices to compel action. Future progress will only happen because of the power of people to hold leaders accountable for honouring their commitments. Leading up to 2022, we must build a movement, develop a new internationalism, and call on the knowledge and experience of Labour in power at a local level. Only then can we drive the bolder action that will protect people you love and the places you belong to.

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