Last weekend, in the midst of the worst flooding the UK has seen in 60 years, Ed Miliband described the UK as ‘sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change’. He argued that as a result of political divisions in Westminster over whether or not to believe the scientific evidence for man-made climate change decisions in the long-term interest of our country were not being made. Apart from the impact on the rest of the world, the government’s failure to accept (and act on) the science of climate change means that people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods are coming under attack.
While these comments showed Ed Miliband’s deep commitment to tackling climate change, neither his sense of urgency nor the sight of Tory heartlands being submerged are likely to convince the current government to take the real action we need. And, while we wait, our climate will continue to change and extreme weather events will become more and more frequent. At the 2015 election Labour will inherit a critically ill patient – the condition will have got worse, the prognosis more serious and the treatment more dramatic.
So, what should we do? In the first instance, we need immediate action to help those affected by our changing climate. Just as we will freeze energy bills to help people in fuel poverty, we will need to help those families and businesses in properties that can’t be insured and communities with failing defences. But that must be just a sticking plaster while we take the very serious measures to tackle the real problem of climate change – both coping with the change that is happening and trying to see off future change. At the heart of this will be decarbonising our economy.
Quite rightly, the focus up until now has been on decarbonising our energy sector. And a Labour government will need to prioritise that ruthlessly – keeping our commitment to decarbonisation targets and carbon budgets; saying no to any developments that will push us off this path or confuse the signals sent to investors; making sure that any new homes are energy- and water-efficient; and being ambitious in upgrading the efficiency of existing homes.
But building a sustainable and resilient economy means looking at more than just the energy sector. As well as thinking about how homes are built, we also need to look at where homes are built and how we manage water. Changes to the planning process to allow councils to consider the value of services provided by nature, and to look at water catchments rather than just immediate locations, would put proposals to build on flood plains in a very different light. And water could be managed in a very different way if the privatised water companies were to spend some of their £1.9bn profit on infrastructure rather than handing £1.8bn to shareholders.
The UK also desperately needs a national infrastructure plan for the transport sector, which was responsible for 21 per cent of our greenhouse gases in 2012 and is set to rise if current trends continue. Rather than a series of local debates around individual roads and airports, we need to bring all of these large-scale developments together and develop a plan with the clear purpose of reducing the UK’s transport emissions, creating jobs, as well as keeping Britain moving.
Finally, Labour needs to reclaim Britain’s place leading the world in tackling climate change, matching our action at home with strong action internationally. Nothing could have been more ironic during the recent floods than the rightwing demands for money to be diverted from overseas aid to help UK flood victims because, when it comes to the environment, the global is the local.
Melanie Smallman is national coordinator of SERA, the Labour environment campaign
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