I welcome this debate and the current upsurge in political backing for action on climate change.
From Extinction Rebellion to the youth climate strikers and Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK last week, the accelerating climate crisis is finally breaking through into the mainstream of political and public consciousness.
And not a day too soon.
The world is warming at an alarming rate. Wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, and flood are becoming more common. Ecological breakdown is not some distant problem – the climate emergency is now our ever-present and collective challenge.
The IPCC’s message is uncompromising: halve global emissions in the next 11 years and hit net zero by the middle of the century.
And as one of the richest countries in the world, and one which has caused far more of the historic emissions than most, we have a particular responsibility to go further and faster.
So let’s have no more of the complacency with claims that we are already doing enough – that our domestic emissions have already fallen by around 40% since 1990.
Because the truth is that once aviation and shipping are included, as well as emissions associated with our imports, that emission reduction falls to about 10% - or 0.4% a year.
Not only that, but since 2010, almost every existing sensible climate measure has been torched.
Zero Carbon Homes scrapped.
Onshore wind banned.
Solar power shafted.
The Green Investment Bank flogged off.
Failing to support community energy.
Fracking forced on local communities.
It’s not surprising that the Government is set to miss its legal climate targets, when its ambition is so low.
And it’s not as if we don’t know what needs to be done. What’s missing is the political will.
So for starters:
- Ban new petrol and diesel cars should be done by 2030 at latest, not 2040; major companies like VW and Volvo have already pledged to stop producing non-electric models before 2030
- Urgently fund innovation in steel and cement decarbonisation, as well as retraining and reskilling workers from the existing sector, to guarantee UK leadership and high quality jobs.
- Boost public procurement to encourage the establishment of early markets for low embodied carbon materials or substitution
- Introduce a much more ambitious resource efficiency programme – with a target to double resource productivity much sooner than the current target of 2050 – Germany has a target of 2020 – so we start to create a genuinely circular economy. Also advantage of saving costs – material costs have risen 9 time faster than labour costs over recent years.
- A housing energy efficiency retrofit programme to bring all homes to EPC band C by 2035 at the absolute latest
- Massive investment in onshore wind and solar – the cheapest ways to generate electricity in UK and they continue to fall in price.
- Major investment in afforestation, habit restorations, including banning damaging practices on peatland, and better soil management.
- Introduce GCSE in Natural History – deep appreciation of the natural world, a love for it, is precondition for its protection.
The Environment Secretary admitted – on meeting Greta Thunberg – that the government has not done enough, that he felt guilty.
We don’t want his guilt – we want action, and action now.
Yesterday, saw the launch of a new IPPR Commission on Environmental Justice, which I’m proud to co-chair with the Labour Member for Doncaster North and the former Conservative MP for South Thanet.
Together we will be looking at how to deliver a Green New Deal - a Green Industrial Revolution.
There aren’t many win-wins in politics, but a Green New Deal is one of them: a massive job creation programme, good quality jobs that can’t be offshored, retrofitting all of the 30 million buildings in Britain with insulation, and installing green energy wherever possible, making a significant reduction in climate emissions, and bringing about an end to fuel poverty.
The unions must be at the heart of this, with workers and local communities driving the process of setting out what the just transition looks like, identifying new training needs, which have to be fully funded.
A sustainable transport revolution, redesigning our towns and cities so reliance on the private car is no longer essential – public transport must be far more affordable and accessible.
Agriculture must play its part too – with a rapid transition away from industrialised farming and towards more plant based diets.
A Green New Deal will protect and restore vital habitats and carbon sinks, regenerate soils, and ensure the provision of clean water, air, and green spaces. Protecting and restoring natural forests and allowing native trees to repopulate deforested land has huge potential for drawing carbon from the air. We have an opportunity here to tackle both the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis at the same time.
Ours is a country where people are asking now how we can revive communities that have been left out of prosperity with levels of inequality that should shame us all. A GND would be transformational – allowing those once proud communities that have been hollowed out through industrialisation and austerity to regenerate and thrive as they join a collective endeavour to protect our planet.
I was a founding member of the original Green New Deal UK group back in 2008 and it’s hugely exciting to see the ideas we put forward have a global impact too, with the extraordinary advocacy of congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has captured America’s imagination and spread the ideas around the world.
Climate activists have done an extraordinary job in putting the climate crisis at the top of the agenda – and there’s a real sense of hope. But now it’s our responsibility to translate that feeling into action.
And if this agenda seems too ambitious for some, if people are afraid we won’t have public opinion with us, I’d recommend looking at a poll released yesterday which makes clear that two thirds of people in the UK recognise there’s a climate emergency - not only do they want action, they want to be part of it too
So tackling the climate crisis can be an opportunity to address the democratic crisis too.
Environmentalism is not something that should be done to the people – it’s something that should be done with people, and ultimately give citizens fresh agency and hope.
If we are to confront the climate crisis while also holding on to our democratic and social values, perhaps even to heal the wounds of Brexit, parliament must provide what many people now want: a greater say on the issues that affect all of our lives.
A citizens’ assembly to draw up a plan of action that has the public’s consent was one of the three asks from Extinction Rebellion.
Yesterday I wrote to the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee proposing that we set up a citizens’ assembly on climate change – one established by Parliament as a whole would be even more powerful.
There is now a wealth of evidence from around the world stretching back many years about deliberative democracy, both concerning its value as a process and a source of good recommendations.
As well as examples many of us will be familiar with on social care, abortion rights and equal marriage, there was the deliberative process in Texas in the late nineties where, following detailed briefing and extended discussion, the understanding of renewables and support for them went up substantially. This resulted in the state going from among the worst to among the best in the US in terms of renewable energy.
In Zegou township China, participants were presented with a set of 30 infrastructure projects, ranging from roads, to schools to gardens, with the promise that 10-12 of the most favoured projects would be built. The top projects consisted of eight environmental projects and just one road related project. The township appointed an official dedicated to environmental affairs, and the infrastructure projects were carried out.
Deliberation helps people see that addressing long term issues requires hard choices. I absolutely believe the ways we can save the planet are also ways to make our world a better place to live, but that doesn’t mean we can avoid difficult decisions.
Moreover, while the pursuit of votes in representative democracy can often lead to retail politics in which parties seek to outbid each other in buying off sections of the electorate, deliberation gives a voice to a genuine cross section of the community putting the onus on finding solutions that work for everyone.
We need a GCSE in Natural History – and I am proud to be working alongside Mary Colwell on that campaign.
It's of real concern that young people in particular today are spending less time in nature – which not only has ill-effects on their own wellbeing, but also risks a younger generation growing up without understanding of the natural world.
Indeed as far back as 1998 Sir David Attenborough expressed dismay at the lack of knowledge about nature revealed by a poll of 700 children between the age of 9 and 11. It showed that only half knew what a bluetit or bluebell looked like, and less than a third could identify a frog.
As Attenborough remarked, “The wild world is becoming so remote to children that they miss out, and an interest in the natural world doesn't grow as it should. Nobody is going to protect the natural world unless they understand it."
US writer Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods” – a wonderful book about saving our children from what he calls “nature deficit disorder”– goes further, warning that “we won’t protect what we don’t love, and we won’t love what we don’t know.”
And the stakes could scarcely be higher - because over the 20 years since Attenborough first sounded the alarm, we’ve destroyed even more of the natural world.
According to the 2016 State of Nature Report the UK is, “one of the most nature depleted countries on earth.”
We now live in an impoverished land where hedgehogs, butterflies, bees, farmland birds and wildflowers are rarities, not common fellow travellers.
Last year, WWF presented the findings of 59 scientists from across the world.
The startling conclusion is that in my lifetime the world has lost 60% of its populations of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles.
In just the briefest blink of an evolutionary eye we are systematically destroying the life that lives alongside us on this astonishing planet.
And unless the next generation know and love what’s at threat, then I fear they’ll be less equipped to fight to protect it.
The recent backing of the Labour leadership is critical and very welcome.
There is no social justice without environmental justice and climate breakdown requires us that we be honest not just about the scale of the crisis but with one another too.
So in the spirit of cross-party co-operation I want to explain why today’s motion is only meaningful if it’s backed up by action.
We can’t tackle climate change and continue to expand airports or build new runways. Heathrow, already produces as many greenhouse gas emissions as Croatia. A third runway would result in a further 300 million tonnes of CO2 being belched into the atmosphere annually.
We cannot tackle the climate crisis whilst investing in new roads. A third of current UK emissions come from the transport sector. There are alternative to fossil fuel cars, but we must invest in them - and set a far more ambitious phase-out date for old and dirty technology.
We cannot tackle climate change whilst at the same time backing new fossil fuel extraction. Britain’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years has been given the go-ahead by Cumbria county council – backed by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors. This decision is a slap in the face for the young people striking for a future.
We cannot tackle climate change whilst ploughing billions of pounds into North Sea oil and gas.
At the end of March SNP, Labour and the Conservative MSPs voted down a Scottish Green motion to recognise a climate emergency by arguing too many jobs and livelihoods depend on the oil and gas industry in Scotland.
Those workers need to be supported in transition to new more sustainable jobs – it’s vital that they don’t lose out – but using jobs as the reason not to create a liveable planet helps no-one – certainly not the families of those workers.
And we cannot tackle climate change if we’re wedded to an economy that assumes the Earth will somehow magically meet our ever-expanding use of resources.
Declaring a climate emergency must be accompanied by a radical step change in understanding across the Labour Party and every other political party of what is necessary.
This is a unique moment in history and the decisions we make right now matter. So yes, let’s unite to declare a climate emergency. And let’s also be honest - responding to this crisis cannot be done by maintaining the status quo.
We have a very small window to reverse things and declaring a climate emergency is the first step.
It’s important because by treating it as an emergency, we might just get agreement to think outside of what is currently deemed to be “politically possible” and instead to do what’s scientifically necessary.
A war-time mobilisation in terms of speed and single-mindedness.
But with the clock ticking we must be honest about the need to go much further, about a bold vision that puts an end to the ‘growth at all costs’ economic model too.
The IPCC warned that we need to reach net zero by the middle of the century. But over that same time period, the global economy is set to nearly triple in size – that’s three times more production and consumption taking place each year.
It would be difficult enough to decarbonize the existing global economy in such a short timeframe. It’s virtually impossible to do it three times over unless we are prepared to rapidly transform our entire economy.
An economy where societies are brought back within planetary boundaries and we are liberated from our dependence on ever increasing economic growth.
The failure to act to avert climate catastrophe is the greatest moral failure of our time.
The industrial world’s destruction of the planet is essentially the story of a single lifetime – the planet brought from seeming stability to the brink of catastrophe in my life time.
And we have to turn it round in our lifetimes too.
It’s the most awesome responsibility
And the most amazing opportunity
When people look back at this moment, it won’t be those blockading bridges or striking from school that history will judge harshly.
It will be those who shut their eyes and blocked their ears.
Those who understood the science of climate change, yet consistently failed to rise to the challenge of our rising seas.
Many say that the problem is too big or too expensive.
But sea levels aren’t the only thing that’s rising – popular movements are rising up too.
And they’re rightly expecting much more of their politicians – it’s our responsibility to deliver.