A green recovery can bring safety and security

Melanie Smallman and Jake Sumner, SERA: Labour’s Environment Campaign Co-chairs

In response to the Chancellor's mini budget today, Melanie Smallman and Jake Sumner set out what green recovery should look like. They argue that the Government’s announcements so far have been inadequate and instead what’s needed are policies that have a twin focus on tackling the climate crisis and building a more secure society. The Government is falling us on both these fronts.

A week ago, a wide range of groups, from environmental NGOs to trades unions, lobbied parliament to argue that the post-COVID-19 recovery must be green. Labour has urged this too. The climate crisis has not gone away, if anything the clock is ticking faster, but we’ve seen little that the Government has set us on the right path. In last week's infrastructure announcement, the Prime Minister failed to make a serious offer. Today, the Chancellor failed too. A trailed announcement on building energy efficiency investment was no-where near enough for the scale of the challenge; the full mini-budget today has proved equally inadequate too.

This failure is not only concerning for our environment, as the threat of climate change becomes even more urgent, it is failure to lead a recovery that truly focused on jobs and on bringing the security that so many desperately need right now. The reality is that failing to address the climate crisis makes our economy and society weaker and more fragile - at a time when COVID-19 has laid bare the inequalities and insecurities that many people live with. A true green recovery is our best hope of an economy that offers security and safety in the future.

Even before COVID-19, polls showed that many people sought security and certainty. The recent IPSOS Mori survey of global trends has identified ‘fear of the future’ as a key trend in 2020. This sense of vulnerability has only been highlighted in the fragilities and weaknesses revealed by the Covid-19 crisis - the precarious nature of work and the frightening lack of safety and security many are experiencing, as well as the frailty of the services that we count on. If we are to build consent to act on the climate, we cannot ask people to lurch from one disaster to another.

The good news is that tackling environmental problems and increased security can easily come together. Although countless Tory Governments have missed this, claiming that the economy came first and branding environmental measures ‘green crap’ that were too expensive, we know that moving to a low-carbon future is the best way to offer the stability and security that people are so desperate for.

There is no choice between growing and greening, because shielding businesses and countries from the vulnerabilities of the volatile global oil market is the best way to provide economic stability and secure jobs. Reducing household energy consumption by insulating homes stops people having to choose between heating and eating, reduces emissions and creates jobs. Low-carbon industries grew the fastest out of the global financial crisis and were the most resilient. Far from being a luxury that can’t be afforded, moving to a low-carbon future is the only way to get our economy off the rocks. This is not simply about solar panels or wind turbines. There’s many businesses -  from cafes to manufacturers, financial bodies to food producers - that have green and low carbon products and services and a range of jobs in them from HR to design, sales to logistics.

There is another positive loop too. COVID has shown a desire from people not to return to ‘business as usual’ as they value access to nature, open spaces and their local community, the possibility of improved air quality, and even the potential of working from home. 

To build this more secure future, we cannot dust down the polices of the past. We need an approach that is comprehensive, scalable, and rapid to tackle the looming climate crisis, and to give people the jobs and security that they need - and soon.

Nationally Labour has a role, making this argument, calling the Government to account and showing what leadership should entail. But because Labour runs cities, regions and the Wales Government, Labour can demonstrate leadership and credibility too in office, making people’s lives more secure now. Polling shows that people are cynical of political claims, but Labour in Government can show a credibility and purpose of action.   

Labour has been consulting on the best way to achieve the green recovery. SERA and Labour Business last week hosted an event with Ed Miliband, Shadow BEIS Secretary and Liam Byrne, Shadow West Midlands Mayor, exploring the national and regional response we need. This formed part of our green recovery policy thinking programme and supported our response to Labour’s consultation.

We need to think and act differently to bring about a green recovery that brings safety and security and here are four key areas:

Job opportunities and security

First, we need to recognise that it is no coincidence that job insecurity has come hand in hand with a lack of trade unions in large parts of the economy. Unions give people a voice and stake and anchor higher pay, skill levels, better conditions and job security. TUC research shows that for every £1 of government investment into the Union Learning Fund it generates a total economic return 12 times that. Many parts of the economy have too little trade union representation. Alongside, research demonstrates the importance of employee voice in driving innovation. Yet, the UK has one of the worst levels of employee engagement in the OECD. And while we need new skills for the future low carbon economy, our skills gaps are again far worse than most other OECD countries. One skills gap in the green economy for example is trained retrofit co-ordinators. The Government should therefore establish a New Future Skills Fund, that asks unions, sectors and supply chains to co-bid for funding to work with skills institutions to train workers to have roles in the green future.

Devolve powers and start the climate conversations

Government environmental leadership and direction is most definitely needed, although it is worryingly lacking. However, even if this was addressed, local and regional administrations are the leaders in their areas and make funding and change work locally. People also want decisions closer to them. Building on what Labour Councils are doing with citizen assemblies and forums, such as Camden, Oxford, Greater Manchester and North Tyne, we need thousands of climate conversations across the country to build awareness, understanding and consent. This can’t happen at a Whitehall desk or at the dispatch box. A green recovery must therefore empower the most appropriate local level for climate action and support the goals that many authorities have set which are more ambitious than those set by the Government.

The environmental crisis is a health crisis

While COVID was much more than a health crisis, climate change is much more than an environmental crisis. The climate catastrophe is the biggest health crisis we face, and we must talk and act in this way - we have seen government action taken in unprecedented rapid and bold ways to tackle a health crisis and the public has given support for these changes. Extreme weather is already threatening lives and the impacts are getting worse. Toxic air contributes to underlying respiratory and health problems which have exacerbated COVID. And through the impact of COVID we face too a mounting mental health crisis. Studies show how important public space and access to nature is to good mental health. This must signal a change in how we plan and build and give people a new right to clean air and access to quality public space and nature. To support this as the UK walks away from the environmental protection of the European Courts, we should establish a ‘Green Guardian’ body, to empower community action on local environmental concerns.

Reclaim Britain’s place in the world

Lastly, we need to reclaim our place in the world - from global leadership on climate change to developing the low carbon technologies that will be the global exports of the future. This should be at the centre of hosting COP26 in 2021 but also run through the industries we invest in and the trade agreements we develop post-Brexit. In a changing world it is tempting to feel safest pulling up the drawbridge. But tackling climate change needs international action and isolating ourselves will only make Britain more vulnerable. 

Dr. Melanie Smallman is an Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies at UCL and Jake Sumner is an Honorary Fellow at UCL's Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose.

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