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Green Economy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:08 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 5:08 pm, 12th March 2020

I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for tabling this debate and for the contributions that it sparked across the House. I particularly like the way it has focused on zero-carbon usage, because that is clearly the way that we have to go if we are to be a truly green economy with truly green lifestyles. Consumerism has promoted infinite growth and environmental destruction. Quite honestly, for humanity to survive in any way, in any degree of comfort, we have to recognise the realities of living on a finite planet. That means changing the technologies we use, the materials we employ and the sources of power, but it also means changing what we do and, in many cases, whether we do anything at all.

It is now settled law that we must achieve net-zero carbon emissions within 30 years, so the argument that this is a climate emergency has finally been won, but the path to net zero, the speed with which we get there and the questions of how costs and benefits are distributed across society are all yet to be settled. The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, listed a lot of individual actions that can and must be taken, but that actually lets the Government off the hook. The Government have a role in this and I am afraid they are not stepping up and performing that role.

I would like to correct the slur against the Extinction Rebellion campaigners. A lot of the materials removed from Trafalgar Square were things that they would have liked to have taken away with them: tents, possessions, sleeping bags, clothes and food. If we are going to blame anyone, we need to blame the person in charge of the police who enforced Section 14 so quickly and drove the protesters away before they could pack their things together.

It is hard, the day after the Chancellor’s Budget, to avoid this debate becoming a proxy Budget debate. So far, this has been a very polite debate and I really do not want to bring down the tone, but at the same time I am absolutely furious at the Budget that we have just had: it is gross negligence on the part of this Government. It actually makes the climate emergency worse instead of better. It is all about profits for the few being more important than the lives of many. Quite honestly, the Budget has not delivered anything near the scale and speed of ambition necessary to invest in a green economy that will reach net zero by 2050.

The journey to net zero is easier the sooner that we get started. We could have embraced a massive green stimulus package following the 2008 financial crisis, instead of bailing out the banks. We could have been a much more prosperous nation today with the benefits of economic recovery much better distributed across society, rather than concentrating on the investments of the wealthy, and the costs of our future climate action would be much lower.

I am sure that the Benches opposite will know about Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the UN General Assembly in 1989. What a pity that they did not pick up those issues then and act on the sort of things that she said. Not putting the policy in place is policy denial, which is almost as bad as climate denial. Failing to adopt the necessary policies is no better than saying that there is no problem in the first place. That is the hole that we and the rest of the world find ourselves in today: a failure of ambition and a failure to accept the levels of investment that will be necessary to tackle the climate emergency.

I hope that the Government’s change in approach to their fiscal rules, especially around capital expenditure, can open the door to the scale of action that we need. Austerity was a stupid policy and it failed entirely. We now have to usher in a new economic era where fiscal and monetary policy come together to transform our economy and society to one where we can all live well within the constraints of our one planet Earth. We need huge government investment alongside firm policy commitments. The Government’s record of abandoning environmental policies such as zero-carbon homes has created a massive policy risk for businesses that are leading from the front. What happens is that the people in advance of climate action who lead on this suffer, and it is the laggards who are rewarded for their dithering. Because so much uncertainty is created, we cannot trust the Government to promise something and then deliver on it, as with zero-carbon homes. For those reasons, the Government should reduce the policy risk as much as possible by entrenching their policies and strategies in law so that they cannot simply be chopped and changed at the whim of Ministers.

At the moment the Government are investing another £27 billion in a new set of roads. They have been making motoring progressively cheaper by continuing to freeze the fuel duty escalator while raising fares above inflation for trains and buses. Surely they can see that this discourages people from using public transport, which is cleaner and could, of course, be more effective if there were fewer cars on the road.

The issue of fairness drives my politics. A green economy can work well for everyone. Extreme and growing wealth and income inequality is not conducive to good environmental outcomes, and it perpetuates the belief that we cannot afford the necessary changes. The rich can buy themselves out of many consequences of the climate and ecological emergencies, so the questions of who funds and how we fund green investment are crucial.

Too many environmental policies are funded in regressive ways that disproportionately hurt those less well off while being barely noticed by the rich. One example out of many is the funding of energy efficiency measures using a levy on energy bills, instead of funding the policies through general taxation. These types of funding arrangements have little purpose other than allowing the Government to finance policies off the books. The Government need to assess all these off balance sheet funding arrangements and bring them into general taxation. That is the fair way of paying for things and it is how we will bring everyone on board for the environmental transition.

I am very upset about the Budget. It is a huge missed opportunity. The Government are not taking us towards any sort of solution to the problems we face in Britain. Your Lordships’ House has a crucial role in ensuring that policies, funding and legislation are in place. We must continually challenge the Government to go harder and faster. During the passage of the Fisheries Bill we have even had to discuss what sustainability means. The Government choose to use it to talk about economic and social sustainability, which it is, but if you do not have environmental sustainability, you do not have sustainability anywhere else. I beg the Government to understand the scale of the problem we are facing. It is bigger than Covid-19 and having a maniac in the White House. It is absolutely crucial that the Government understand the size of the problem.