Rapid and Dramatic Action on Climate Change is Needed Now
Today the House must declare an environment and climate emergency. We have no time to waste. We are living in a climate crisis that will spiral dangerously out of control unless we take rapid and dramatic action now. This is no longer about a distant future; we are talking about nothing less than the irreversible destruction of the environment within the lifetimes of Members.
Young people know this. They have the most to lose. A few weeks ago, like many other Members on both sides of the House, I was deeply moved to see the streets outside Parliament filled with colour and the noise of children chanting “Our planet, our future”. For someone of my generation, it was inspiring but also humbling that children felt that they had to leave school to teach us adults a lesson. The truth is that they are ahead of the politicians on this, the most important issue of our time. We are witnessing an unprecedented upsurge of climate activism, with groups such as Extinction Rebellion forcing the politicians in this building to listen. For all the dismissive and offensive column inches that the protesters have provoked, they are a massive and, I believe, very necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say, “We hear you.”
… I have been a Member of this House for 36 years. In that time I have observed something about this place that is glaringly obvious but seldom acknowledged: Parliament rarely leads change; it usually drags its feet— it is normally the last place to pick up on the major reforms that society is demanding. Think about the huge transformations in our society—workers’ rights, women’s rights and gay rights. The impetus has always come from outside—from social movements and communities—while Westminster is often the last place to understand that.
Let us not repeat that pattern. Let us respond to what a young generation is saying to us in raising the alarm. By becoming the first Parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency, we could, and I hope we do, set off a wave of actions from Parliaments and Governments all around the world. Surely if we lead by example and others follow, that would be the best possible answer to the all too common excuse we all hear on doorsteps: “Why should we act when others won’t?”
… Let us work more closely with countries that are serious about ending the climate catastrophe, especially those at the sharp end of it, such as the small country of the Maldives, so vulnerable to rising sea levels. It told the UN climate talks last year: “We are not prepared to die” and implored countries to unite. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister recently warned of the “existential threat” posed by climate breakdown to the 160 million people of his country and urged others to adhere to their commitments under the Paris climate change agreement.
I attended the Paris conference in 2015 with my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). I thank him for his passion at that conference, for his commitment to environmental sustainability and for the great work he did on forestry during the last Labour Government. It is a pleasure to work with him. He and the whole of the Labour party strongly support the UK’s bid to host the UN climate change conference in 2020, and I really hope that that will happen. When it does, Members from across the House will have a chance to interact with those attending the conference.
Let us also make it clear to President Trump that he must re-engage with international climate agreements. We must also be absolutely clear-eyed about the Paris agreement: it is a huge and significant breakthrough, but it is not enough. If every country in the whole world meets its current pledges as per the Paris agreement, temperatures will still rise by 3° in this century. At that point, southern Europe, the horn of Africa, central America and the Caribbean will be in permanent drought. Major cities such as Miami and Rio de Janeiro would be lost to rising sea levels. At 4°, which is where we are all heading with the current rate of emissions, agricultural systems would be collapsing.
This is not just a climate change issue; it is a climate emergency. We are already experiencing the effects all around us. Here at home, our weather is becoming more extreme. The chief executive of the Environment Agency recently warned that we were looking into what he called the “jaws of death” and that we could run short of water within 25 years. At the same time, flash flooding is becoming more frequent. Anyone who has visited the scene of a flooded town or village knows the devastation that it brings to families. That was vividly brought home to me when I visited Cockermouth after the 2015 floods, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), who is doing such a brilliant job as shadow Environment Secretary. She first challenged the Government to declare a climate emergency a month ago.
Around the world, we are seeing ice caps melting, coral reefs dissolving, droughts in Africa, hurricanes in the Americas and wildfires in Australia. Cyclone Idai killed more than 900 people in south-east Africa, mainly in Mozambique, and affected 3 million more, only to be immediately followed by the current horrors of Cyclone Kenneth. The heating up of our climate is contributing to a terrifying loss of animal and plant species, but sadly, that is something that we are only just recognising. I remember joining and working with the World Wide Fund for Nature when I was at school. According to the WWF, humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970—a year that many of us in this House can remember.
Earlier this year, the first global scientific review of its kind found that insects could become extinct within a century unless action was taken. Insects pollinate plants and keep the soil healthy. Without pollination and healthy soil there is no food, and without food there is no life. Meanwhile, there is far too much intensive farming. We are pumping far too many fertilisers into the earth, which is taking its toll on our soil. Soil degradation is a major issue, as anyone who reads the farming journals will be picking up on all the time. We are seeing the weakening of soil structures, and there is a need to strengthen them. More sustainable farming systems will lead in the longer run to better yields and less cost for pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. The Environment Secretary himself has warned that we have only 30 to 40 years left before our fertile soil is eradicated, so I hope he will support the motion today.
… At the heart of the environment and climate emergency is the issue of justice, and it is those here and around the world who are least to blame for it who bear the burden and pay the highest cost. A 2015 study found that children living in our British inner-city areas can have their lung capacity reduced by up to 10% by air pollution on major roads. Of course, the situation is even more extreme for children growing up in densely populated urban areas in China and India. The pollution levels in many cities around the world are damaging children before they reach the age of five. Children should not have to pay with their health for our failure to clean up our toxic air.
Working-class communities suffer the worst effects of air pollution. Those who are least able to rebuild their lives after flooding will be hit hardest by rising food prices, while the better off, who are sometimes more responsible for emissions, can pay their way out of the trouble. Internationally, in a cruel twist of fate, it is the global south that faces the greatest devastation at the hands of drought and extreme weather, which fuel poverty and war and create refugees as people are forced to flee their homes. Some of the 65 million refugees in this world—not all, but some—are in reality climate refugees. They are paying the price of emissions that come not from the global south, but overwhelmingly from the global north and rapidly industrialising societies.
Sir David Attenborough recently said on his brilliant television programme: “We now stand at a unique point in our planet’s history. One where we must all share responsibility both for our present wellbeing and for the future of life on Earth.”
That is the magnitude of what we are talking about. It is too late for tokenistic policies or gimmicks. We have to do more. Banning plastic is good and important, but individual action is not enough. We need a collective response that empowers people, instead of shaming them if they do not buy expensive recycled toilet paper or drive the newest Toyota Prius. If we are to declare an emergency, it follows that radical and urgent action must be taken. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to avert the disastrous effects of warming greater than 1.5° C, global emissions must fall by about 45% by 2030 to reach net zero by 2050 at the absolute latest. It is a massive demand and it is a massive ask, and it will not happen by itself.
We are going to have to free ourselves from some of the harmful beliefs that have characterised our thinking for too long. The hidden hand of the market will not save us, and technological solutions will not magically appear out of nowhere. An emergency of this magnitude requires large-scale Government intervention to kick-start industries, to direct investment and to boost research and development in the green technologies of the future, and that is not a burden.
… Historically, the industry that changed Britain was coal. Coal powered the first industrial revolution in Britain, but that was done on the backs of the working class at the expense of our environment. The green industrial revolution will unwind those injustices, harness manufacturing to avert climate breakdown, and provide well-paid, good-skilled and secure jobs. Imagine former coalfield areas becoming the new centres of development of battery and energy storage. Towns such as Swindon, which proudly made locomotives, could become hubs for building a next generation of high-speed trains. Shipbuilding areas that were once the heart of an industry that is now diversified around the world could gain a new impetus in developing offshore wind turbines and all the technology that goes with them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) for her great work on the green industrial revolution and Labour’s plan, which will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in renewable energy. The solution to the crisis is to reprogram our economy so it that works in the interests of people and the planet. That means publicly owned energy and water companies with a mandate to protect the environment instead of just seeking profit. It means redesigning public agricultural funding to benefit local business and sustainable farming that supports biodiversity, plant life and wildlife. It also means not unnecessarily flying basic products across the globe when they could be transported in a more sustainable way.
The solution means funding home insulation schemes, particularly where there are poor-quality homes—especially in the private rented sector—and I pay tribute to the work done on retrofitting homes. When I visited the University of Salford with my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South, I saw the work being done on the efficient conversion of back-to-back terraced houses into sustainable homes with energy efficiency. That means investing in bus routes, cycle routes and infrastructure, and reopening railway lines and improving railways in public ownership, so that people can travel quickly and cheaply, and not necessarily by car.
The solution also means big investments, such as the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, and not prioritising fracking, which rides roughshod over local communities and damages our climate. It means planting trees to improve air quality and prevent flooding. It means expanding our beautiful forests, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide habitats for wildlife. Sadly, the United Kingdom has some of the lowest levels of forest cover in Europe. It has expanded somewhat, but it needs to grow a lot faster. We must support tree planting initiatives, such as those in Leicester and Milton Keynes, and the brilliant initiative of the national forest in Leicestershire. It is exciting to think about all the opportunities we will have, if we take them. However, if Natural England’s funding is slashed in half, we will see how austerity and cutting of funds reduce our ability to act.
Internationally, we must ensure that our defence and diplomatic capacity are capable of responding quickly and effectively to climate disasters around the world. We must take serious steps on debt relief and cancellation to deal with the injustice of countries trying to recover from climate crises they did not create while, at the same time, struggling to pay massive international debts. The debt burden makes it even harder for them to deal with the crisis they are facing. In our aid policy, we need to end support for fossil fuel projects in the global south.
… The last Labour Government brought in some of the most ambitious legislation in the world with the Climate Change Act 2008, and I pay a special thank you and tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and others who brought it in. They did incredible work to ensure it happened, and I remember my right hon. Friend’s work at the Copenhagen conference in 2009 when the UK was given a prime seat in the negotiations because we had genuine respect on this issue due to the Climate Change Act he had piloted through Parliament.
Since then, I am sorry to say, we have fallen behind. Conservative Members will boast that the UK is reducing carbon emissions, but I have to tell them it is too slow. At the current rate, we will not reach zero emissions until the end of the century, more than 50 years too late. By that time, our grandchildren will be fighting for survival on a dying planet.
The point that Greta Thunberg made to me and others when we met her last week is that we should listen to the science, which is an impressive thing for her to say on behalf of all the young people she works with and speaks for. The IPCC has said: “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. The IPCC has also said that such action is urgent.
The science says this is an emergency, but an emergency does not have to be a catastrophe. We could use it as an opportunity to rebuild our economy so that it works for the many, not the few. This is not a time to allow despair to take over, but a time for action. We can do this. The Government can improve the lives of our people while defending our natural world. What we do in this country can have an impact around the globe.
Let us embrace hope. The children in schools get it. They get it right away. They grasp the threat to their own future and, in fact, they want to be taught more about it as part of the curriculum and their normal school day. Are we to be content to hand down a broken planet to our children? That is the question we must ask ourselves today. We have a chance to act before it is too late, and it is a chance that will not be available to succeeding generations. It is our historic duty to take it.
This article originally appeared on Labour Hub