We need to demand more than reversing Tory climate U-turns

Sep 25, 2023

Protestors at extinction Rebellion’s ‘The Big One’ demonstration, Summer 2023

‘We need labour movement solutions and organising that are based in the reality and science of climate change, and the economic injustice of austerity policies.’

Sam Mason

By Sam Mason, Coordinator of the Climate Justice Coalition Trade Union Caucus

As the dust settles on the announcements by Rishi Sunak to roll back on net zero policy, this should be the wake-up call for every socialist, trade unionist, and climate campaigner to unite around a common agenda of real economic and social justice, and a publicly owned transition plan – a national plan that addresses carbon emissions, air quality and wider environmental concerns, jobs and social justice, and one which is democratically negotiated with trade unions and with the participation of communities and campaigners.

Sunak’s policy u-turns for short-term and calculated political risk harms us more and shows a complete failure to grasp the difference between net zero targets and action. Not least, the incredible lack of transparency to the general public about how carbon budgets work and how delay today will just make things even tougher in the future.

As the UKERC have said, what Sunak is presenting is a “false trade off”.

Going slower means climate breakdown going faster. This point is non-negotiable as we watch the climate crisis unfold in ever more horrific detail from wildfires, droughts, flooding, storms around the world – and so it goes on and will continue to do so.

It also means putting more financial costs onto us all. The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) have calculated that these policy changes could cost British households around £8bn in higher bills, and will particularly hit those in the private rented sector by removing the responsibility for energy efficiency measures from landlords.

The policy announcements as ever underscore the lack of a coherent Government plan to tackle climate change. Indeed, there are problems with charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and for national grid connections. But the fault for this lies at the door of government, market led ‘carrot and sticks’ transition, and privatisation of our energy system.

Increasing electric vehicles and installation of heat pumps – both of which are needed – requires massive new energy infrastructure and generation. It also requires a level of Government coordination which is anathema to the Tories but as Covid showed, something they can do if the urgency demands it.

Therefore, in response to these u-turns, we need to consider: do we put our energy into overturning these, or into wider objectives of achieving a progressive green new deal which would ensure social and economic justice for workers and communities? As a movement, it should be the latter.

While we do need to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles as soon as possible given that transport remains a stubbornly high emitting sector, this is only one part of transport jigsaw. We need a wider mobility strategy that includes, as the Committee on Climate Change note, a modal shift from private vehicles. This requires a mass public transit system that is run on renewable energy, affordable, accessible, and universal – the very transport system trade unions are fighting fo, helping towards net zero targets, creating jobs, and wider social benefits.

Likewise, we need to wean ourselves of gas for heating as soon as possible but, again, boilers are only one part of the heating jigsaw.  The start point has to be in reducing domestic energy use and addressing fuel poverty through energy efficiency measures as well as installing heat pumps.  This means a national programme of mass retrofit and insulation on a street by street basis run out by local authorities underwritten by government financial support. This would both decrease greenhouse gas emissions and consumer bills, and provide for thousands of skilled, unionised, jobs – policies which trade unions, campaigners and industry collectively support, even if we might differ on the delivery detail.

The Tories have form on cutting the “green crap” as David Cameron liked to call green policies. Analysis by Carbon Brief in 2022 showed that previous Tory u-turns added £2.5bn to consumer energy bills, and we know it cost jobs.

And while the announcements on pressing ahead with new oil and gas licences aren’t new it should not be lost in all this. Fossil fuels are at the root of the climate crisis and we have to end their use.  Continued production in the North Sea does nothing for energy security and ultimately, as TUC Congress recently agreed, we need to take all energy assets into public ownership and democratic control.

We don’t have time to fight for piecemeal policy, or for more backsliding in the Labour Party . We need labour movement solutions and organising that are based in the reality and science of climate change, and the economic injustice of austerity policies – solutions that are part of a planned transition that has real justice at its heart for workers, for communities, for planet.

Ultimately, change will only happen if we dare to be radical and demand more.