Response to UK Labour’s consultation on Green Recovery

Labour’s National Policy Forum published a consultation paper on a Green Recovery to follow the covid-19 crisis which closed on 20 July 2020. Climate policy is a key area of work for Politics Without Borders. Our brief response argues that, rather than re-inventing the wheel, Labour should seek to integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) into UK public policy, that climate action must be the central programme of UK Government and that government must prioritise winning over the public to supporting greening the UK economy.

There is no greater threat to our way of life, our planet and its ecosystems than climate change. And there is no clearer example of an issue that requires immediate and comprehensive international action than achieving net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible, ideally by 2030 and certainly no later than 2050.

Although the Covid-19 crisis has been a huge shock to societies and economies across the world, both in the Global South and Global North, it has nonetheless shone a spotlight on a number of aspects of life from our patterns of work and consumption to our overall economic model. The reduction in vehicle traffic during the early weeks of the lockdown and the corresponding increase in the quality of air across towns and cities demonstrates our hitherto reliance on modes of production and transportation that actively degrade our natural environment.

The challenge confronting an incoming Labour government will be to ensure that the promotion and delivery of a transition to a carbon neutral economy is, not so much at the heart of government policy, but is the government policy and is understood as such through the machinery of government and at every level of governance.

Labour must commit to that central, defining aim for any incoming Labour or Labour-led government: to prepare the country for the enormous shift that the transition to sustainability demands. The success of a government programme committed to a green transition will require the building of broad social consensus reflected in the machinery of governance but among economic actors and in civil society. This will be a central task of an incoming government. It cannot be siloed, or sectioned off for a specific department to pick up later and attempt to retro-actively fit into whatever existing work patterns the government had adopted. Each and every facet of government work must start with the intention to deliver sustainability.

Labour, in government at every level, must:

  • Embed sustainability at the start of every policy process.
  • Enable public and private organisations to delivery change with incentives and penalties as necessary
  • Empower citizens to take charge and own the process so that it is a genuine co-operative national endeavour

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are already a blueprint for organisations big and small to embed the delivery of a sustainable future into their workplans. The SDGs should be considered at source and not at the end of the process. Traditionally, corporate and social responsibility exercises have taken place as a kind of annual review of work already done. If we are serious about tackling this issue we must reverse the process. Nothing should be proposed, advanced and delivered until we are certain in its ability to deliver sustainability.

In considering the investment priorities for an incoming government Labour should look at the combined effect of the two major shocks confronting the UK economy together. Recovery from the Covid-19 crisis cannot realistically be separated from the effect of the UK’s departure from the European Union, its single market and customs union.

Action can be short and medium term. We propose:

  1. Replacing the “one in one out” (later “one in two out”) populist rule introduced by the Cameron government with a commitment that “each and every” new policy will adhere to the principles of delivering sustainability and will assist in the delivery of the UN’s 17 SDGs.
  2. Each and every proposal must be audited against its impact in furthering the delivery of the SDGs. A simple scoring system can aid the planning process to evaluate how effective a particular policy might be in advancing SDGs. Where two ideas are in contention, their merits should be considered on the basis that the one with the highest SDG score receives preference.
  3. In the same way that fraud and poor pay undermine and threaten our societies, so too does a disregard for the welfare and integrity of our environment. Corporate responsibility has evolved markedly and it is time to introduce requirements that part of treating a workforce with respect is to ensure the natural environment is also protected. As well as a range of tax and other incentives to encourage the adoption of sustainable standards companies and public bodies should face penalties and sanctions for failing to adhere to policies and practices that promote sustainability. Any future Labour government must hold itself accountable to the same standards. Every support available should be given to organisations public and private, large and small, to ensure they have the ability and means to make the transition. Nobody can expect to get this right from the start, but it is government’s job to ensure the resources and tools are available and, where those tools are not being used or actively rejected, to impose penalties.
  4. The transition to a zero-carbon economy cannot take place without the consent of people. An incoming Labour government must, therefore, be committed to making the case continually for its policy and the necessity of a national effort to address the climate emergency. As necessary as it is, it is fertile ground for those who seek to portray the left as a sinister force destined to deprive people of their liberty. The truth is none of us is free if we are to endure the result of catastrophic climate change. There will be less food, less money, more dispossessed, more disease and more poverty. Labour should ensure that local authorities – particularly in communities who will be hardest hit by the transition – are set up to communicate effectively and bring people along. Different models will work in different locations but regular forums, workshops, consultations and formal events like Citizens’ Assemblies should be encouraged so there is a sense of empowerment in local communities. Working with other parts of the world and fighting an international threat need not feel like a project that is being imposed on people. Labour can work with its international partners to set up international forums of cities and regions to share and promote best practice and examples of successful innovation and community empowerment. 
  5. Automotive transport remains a major generator of CO2 emissions as well as other pollutants affecting air quality and represents a major opportunity to accelerate positive change. Demand for electric mobility is increasing exponentially. There is little future in the internal combustion engine and research and production into electric mobility is taking place at pace. The ability of the UK to accelerate its transition toward electric mobility will depend upon the supporting infrastructure being in place. This will involve investment in power distribution networks and in city and urban infrastructure. Meanwhile central government will need to ensure that the legislative framework keeps pace with the innovation of the industry around autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. However repairing damaged trading relationships to enable the reconstruction of supply chains will take time and occupy much energy of an incoming Labour government, there is an opportunity to reconfigure what is left of UK manufacturing to prepare it for the future. Investment should be targeted at areas that will suffer the most from the UK’s withdrawal from the single market. These tend to be former manufacturing areas, traditionally Labour, who swung behind the Tories in 2019 having abandoned their trust in Labour.
  6. The tax system can incentivise innovation and behavioural change. Some aspects of life will have changed irrevocably as a result of Covid-19. It is perfectly possible that the model of commuting to a town or city centre and returning to a suburb or the country is a dying one. Ongoing investment in coming generations of broadband and future communications infrastructure will be essential to support an economy where reduced travel, remote working and virtual business structures are common rather than exceptional. Patterns of consumer behaviour affecting retail and recreation have also reflected an ongoing shift toward online commerce. An incoming Labour Government will need to address the societal impact of on-line markets, a diminished retail sector and the knock-on effects on commercial markets and city centres. Changes that were already in tow might have been accelerated by a public health crisis, rather than stopped in their tracks. Having stronger communities closer to where people live and enabling home working and less travelling to work depends on a range of factors: the job, the level of experience, the financial circumstances, the size of a home or family. More working from home works for some but not all. But it seems right that it should work for the highest number of people. Changes to individual and corporate taxation could both discourage unnecessary travel and compensate for costs and technology investments that can result from home working. SMEs in particular can benefit greatly from a distributed organisation but can encounter the greatest difficulties establishing the necessary processes.
  7. Technological change is driving the societal changes that are providing fertile ground for populists, but it is also driving the solutions to our crisis. Smart grids, automated planning for travel, appliance use and utilities use can all make enormous differences. Even if each household were to save an individually small amount of energy, when scaled up each small change represents a huge difference to the country’s overall carbon output. Upgrading the nation’s homes to smart technology must be a key priority.
  8. The next Labour government should develop an early warning system for the country, similar to the system used to evaluate the threat of terrorist attack. The system can serve not just as a warning but as an encouragement too. The effect of the country going for weeks without burning coal might be well known to climate scientists and green activists but if it could represent a periodic and obvious upgrade in the nation’s overall sustainability index it can help to engender a sense of progress and that this truly is an act of national endeavour. The index should be broken down to a regional and city level too so that smaller, manageable changes can have a direct and immediate impact on widely understood indices. These indices could even be part of a renewed competitiveness among cities and regions to help generate a “race to the top.” Schools and colleges can be part of the system too, whereby students are encouraged to enter competitions to design the future policies and systems that will improve a town’s sustainability rating. Where ratings go backwards, the process for assessing should be transparent and obvious so that the reasons are clear and the solutions deliverable.
  9. It is important to emphasise that a green recovery will only go so far to addressing the climate crisis without continued and sustained change to energy markets and the long-term investment in renewable energy sources and the discontinuation of fossil fuels. Tax, planning and employment support to both encourage sustainable and green industry in those areas hardest hit by Brexit and Covid-19 as well as moves from traditional industry will need to form the backbone of a long-term approach to recovery.
  10. Labour should commit to working with allies and through international forums to promote multilateral approaches to climate action and international co-operation to promote green recovery.