Caroline Lucas: 'We're not learning the lessons of Covid when it comes to the climate'
For many environmentalists, the global pandemic offered an opportunity to reset our approach to the climate crisis. But despite a liberal sprinkling of greenwashing in the economic update, the country's only Green MP thinks that the chancellor has squandered the opportunity
Ahead of his much-anticipated Summer Economic Update, the chancellor’s promise of a boost in green investment was cautiously welcomed by environmentalists. But, that optimism quickly waned as his plans were fleshed out at the despatch box.
Caroline Lucas, the Commons’ only Green Party MP, was among those dismayed. “Liberally scattering the word green into a couple of announcements isn’t going to do the job”, she explains.
Prior to the update, much was made of the pandemic’s potential to facilitate a green economic recovery. A report from the Government’s environmental advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), even set out exactly how it could be done. Lord Deben, the committee’s chair, said it would be “stupid” not to combine plans to revive the economy with measures to tackle climate change. But that, Lucas fears, is what has happened.
“I think it was an unforgivably squandered opportunity, to be honest,” she says. “We’re absolutely at a crossroads right now. And the decisions that get taken now will really lock us into one of two alternative routes.”
“That’s why I just feel so angry and frustrated. At this critical moment when there are so many voices from so many places who would tell him that the best way to create the jobs and to get the economy moving is through investment in the green economy, [Sunak] just doesn’t seem to be listening.”
For Lucas, the attempt at a climate-focused recovery was green in name only. The £3bn eco-friendly funding pledged seemed pale in comparisons to France’s €15bn, or Germany’s $46bn. And, where the “too little, too late” pledges do make progress, they are “undermined” by contradictory polluting policies, or hindered by a flawed approach.
“Although both the chancellor and the prime minister have talked about a green recovery, neither of them are stepping back, for example, from their plans for a £27bn road building programme, which is an amount of money that puts £3bn pretty well in the shade,” she explains.
Retrofitting homes has long been high on environmental campaigners wishlists, and it featured prominently in the chancellor’s update. But, Lucas is still not satisfied. ”I’m glad he’s looking at the issue of insulating homes and retrofitting homes that’s incredibly important,” the Brighton Pavilion MP goes on, “but the idea that a voucher system is going to be able to achieve the amount of retrofits that we need in the time scale available is, I think, for the birds.
“There needs to be a regulatory framework within which these kinds of policies sit. We know that people’s resistance to getting their homes insulated isn’t just about funding. It’s also about the hassle factor.”
I think Covid-19 raised some really critical questions about what we value
“We needed to have local authorities involved, we needed to have a street-by-street efficient process of insulating homes. So essentially, this goes nowhere near fast enough.”
Though £3bn, to most, may seem like a lot, it is quickly lost within the £192bn the pandemic response is set to cost the government. Elsewhere on the Commons benches, Labour is divided over whether to back a wealth tax to help offset the costs. But where do the Greens stand?
Lucas says she backs the tax in principle, but thinks the focus now should be on investment.
“I think that the idea that a wealth tax alone is going to be able to pay for all of the spending that we’ve been seeing is unlikely,” she says.
“And I think we need to be very upfront about the fact that the Government needs to borrow and when interest rates are at rock bottom, then that is exactly the time that they should be borrowing to invest.”
“If they invest in green jobs, then much of the tax revenue that they will have coming back into the Treasury as a result of those new jobs will pay for some of that.”
The Opposition has also lambasted the Government over the decline in the aviation sector, with thousands of airline jobs cut and many more down the supply chain also at risk. Here, there’s a paradox for green campaigners – how do you back a fall in flights without backing job losses?
“I think we’re going to have to accept that there will be a smaller aviation sector in the future than there has been in the past,” Lucas says. “At the same time. I think we absolutely need to be supporting people who work in aviation.
“What we need to be doing is supporting people who work in the industry, helping them retrain where appropriate, making sure there is a transition to something else. Not just simply closing down an industry like the coal mines were closed down decades ago with such immense damage done to those communities that they are still living today.”
So, what should the Government do? “We need to have a serious high-level task force set up that would include the unions and other representatives of the sector to sit down and work out what a transition strategy would look like.
“And I don’t have all the answers to that, but I do know that it will require significant political will and significant financial resource.”
Beyond Westminster, eyebrows have also been raised by a statement from the Bank of England’s governor Andrew Bailey, who said the institution was no longer considering climate change in its lending decisions. Lucas shares concerns that such a move sets a dangerous precedent for policy makers. “What makes it so frustrating is the fact that it’s wrong on both environmental and economic grounds,” she adds.
We’re going to have to accept that there will be a smaller aviation sector in the future than there has been in the past
“We should be testing all policy interventions against a measure of whether or not they’re taking us further towards meeting our climate objectives or taking us further away from them. We should be bearing in mind what the CCC itself has said, which is that we are off target for our fourth and fifth climate budgets.”
But, a new precedent has recently been set. Campaign group Plan B was successful in its legal challenge against plans for a third runway at Heathrow. The argument? That the Government hadn’t adequately considered its commitment to net zero by 2050 when it went ahead with the plan. They are now threatening fresh legal action, this time targeting the chancellor’s Summer Economic update.
“If the Government’s not very careful, it’s going to find itself in court over this as well. So I would urge it to reconsider, and live up to its rhetoric because it’s very strong on green rhetoric, but sadly poor when it comes to green delivery,” Lucas’ muses.
Numerous parallels have been drawn between the pandemic and the worsening of the climate crisis that many fear is on the horizon. The IPPR think tank suggested as such in a recent report. “What’s so ironic is that there’s been a lot of discussion during the last few months about this pandemic,” Lucas goes on, “saying if only we’d listen to people warning about pandemics earlier. Then perhaps we would have been better prepared.”
“Well, there have been so many people warning about the reality of the climate emergency which will, frankly, be orders of magnitude more serious in its impact even than Covid.
She continues: “We’ve got loads of scientific voices absolutely making it clear that if we do the wrong thing now we’re going to be storing up unimaginable suffering for our kids, and their kids, and future generations.
“And yet the lesson that we should have learned from the pandemic, which is to listen to the science and listen to the warnings, we are flying in the face of when it comes to the bigger challenge of the climate emergency.”
Amid it all, Lucas concedes some things have changed for the better amid the pandemic. “The last few months have given people an opportunity – at least those of us lucky enough not to have been on the frontline of a pandemic – to work out what we really care about,” she reflects.
“The number of people that have mentioned to me that they’ve appreciated the cleaner air cleaner, clearer birdsong, the quieter streets. But also, they recognise that things like access to green spaces is pretty much a fundamental right.”
“It’s a justice issue in the sense that it tends to be the less well off who have the least access to nature. I think it’s raised some really critical questions about what we value.”