Environment and Climate Change

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:26 pm on 1st May 2019.

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Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Labour, Doncaster North 3:26 pm, 1st May 2019

It is nice of my hon. Friend to say so.

I want to talk about how we persuade people, and I think there are four things we need to do. First, I enjoyed the speech by Deidre Brock, who speaks from the Front Bench for the SNP, but I slightly disagreed with one thing. She said a couple of times that we need to tell people their lives are going to be less comfortable. I slightly feel that that is saying, “I’m here from Planet Politics to say you’re going to have a less comfortable life.” I do not mean this in a trite way—I think it true that sacrifices must be made—but we should promise people something else, which is that they will have better lives if we act on climate change. I do not think that is a false promise; I think that is a genuine promise.

If we think about this idea of the green new deal, what is that about? It is about retrofitting every building in this country—house by house, street by street—in the way we did in the 1960s and 1970s when we moved from town gas to natural gas. That is tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of jobs, including for my constituents and the constituents of every Member, and it is about lower bills for people. If we think about our towns and cities, we see that it is about making them much better for walking and cycling—and, indeed, electric vehicles—cutting thousands of deaths from air pollution. My first and in a way most important point is: let us tell people not just the gloomy part of this—it is important to talk about the gloomy part—but that they can have better lives as a result. That is what we are in politics to do.

Secondly, I want to say something about the role of individuals, because I have come to believe that there is something slightly dangerous in this. Every individual has to do their bit, including we politicians, but I think there is something that makes people feel incredibly powerless if we put all the weight of responsibility on them. We are saying to people, “We’ve got this massive problem; your kids are never going to forgive you; and you’ve got to act.”

Let me give the House one statistic. In Norway last month, 60% of sales of new vehicles were electric; in Britain, it is something like 1.8%. I am sure we in this House all love the Norwegians. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Indeed. But that is not because the Norwegians are intrinsically more green than we are, but because there is a shedload of incentives to go green and buy an electric vehicle in Norway. The point is that this is about system change, not just individual change. Some of this is about decisions not necessarily that individuals are making, but what airports we commission, how we produce our power and all that. Individuals must make their contribution, but incentives matter, and we cannot place all the burden on individuals.

Thirdly, there is sacrifice—the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith. We cannot deny that there will be sacrifice, and there will be things we cannot necessarily do that we do at the moment but have to do less. Why have we failed to make some progress on this, and I am thinking back to my time as leader as well? Because I do not think that we or the green movement as a whole have thought enough about how we distribute the costs among those who bear the burden.

The reality about energy bills is that the poor pay a significantly higher proportion of their income on energy bills than the rich. As we think about the £10 billion that goes to support energy companies, which the Secretary of State talked about, we have to think about how those costs are borne through taxation as opposed to energy bills. Unless we do that, people will say, “Well, hang on. The costs are all falling on me, and I can least afford it.” We only need to look at what has happened to President Macron and the protests he has faced to realise that we cannot just say, “It’s green and therefore it’s fair.” We have to make sure that the costs are fairly distributed.

My fourth and final point is about the international angle. Boris Johnson, who is not in his place, wrote recently that Extinction Rebellion should go and protest in China, while he seemed modestly to approve of some of its aims. That misses the point: as Secretaries of State and the House know, the reality is that our moral authority comes from our being able to act. There is no way we could persuade China and India to act themselves if we were not leaders on this issue.

My experience at the not-very-successful Copenhagen summit was that China and India would listen to us because, unlike the US, we were actually acting. I cannot emphasise enough to the House the authority that our ability to act gives us. By the way, the Chinese recognise the opportunity. They are installing so much solar and wind power because they know that there is an economic advantage. The issue is particularly crucial in the next 15 to 18 months because of our hope to host COP—the conference of the parties—in 2020. That is the moment when we have to update the Paris targets. We are overshooting, even on the basis of the Paris targets. Unless that conference of the parties takes decisive action, it may well be too late.