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Ed Miliband: 'If the Conservatives want a climate election in the next election, I say bring it on'

Credit: Baldo Sciacca

10 min read

Ed Miliband is back on the Labour frontbench, and pursuing his passion of tackling the climate crisis. He talks to Georgina Bailey about why the government’s green jobs plans fall short, why COP-26 is the most important international summit yet, and whether XR is helping or hurting

Ed Miliband doesn’t think he’s changed much in his five years on the backbenches.

“It’s the same me. You’re going to have to explain what you mean by that question. People have discovered I’ve got a personality, you mean?” he says over Zoom from his office in Westminster, where he is being periodically distracted by somebody dressed as Mickey Mouse walking up and down the bridge leading to Parliament.

People have a different perception of him now, I suggest. He’s been more removed from the limelight, and launched a successful podcast. There are fewer people taking photos of him eating.

“Which is a good thing, given the past record,” the former Labour leader quips. “I don’t think I am different… It’s kind of hard to self-commentate on these things. I don’t know. I’m just the same person I was, but maybe feeling less constrained.”

Now back in Labour’s top team as shadow business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) secretary, Miliband seems to be unleashing his self-proclaimed nerdy side when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. As the secretary of state who introduced the Climate Change Act in 2008, and a long-time campaigner for more radical action on the climate crisis, his promotion by Keir Starmer in April was seen as a unity appointment, strongly supported by proponents of Labour’s ambitious Green New Deal Policy in 2019. 

There’s a shortfall of something like £30bn a year when it comes to getting on track for net zero. The government is way off target

“What have I learned in the decade or more that I’ve been thinking about this issue?” he asks himself. “I think that we probably haven’t done enough to make climate change not simply an environmental issue, but an economic and social justice issue, which it is.”

Just over a fortnight ago, Miliband and Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, released Labour’s Build It In Britain report, which called for £30bn of government investment in green industries and infrastructure over 18 months. Designed to aid the UK’s recovery from the Covid crisis, which has seen the economy contract by 11% and nearly 800,000 jobs lost so far, Labour estimated their plan would create 400,000 jobs. 

A week later, the prime minister announced his £12bn 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. While claiming it would support 250,000 jobs, the government later admitted that only £3bn of the money was new. Unsurprisingly, Miliband brands it “incredibly disappointing”. 

“I don’t think that comes up to the scale of the jobs emergency... and I don’t think it comes up the scale of the climate emergency either,” says Miliband. “What independent estimates have said is that in Parliament, there’s a shortfall of something like £30bn a year when it comes to getting on track for net zero. The government is way off target, even after what Boris Johnson has unveiled...”

“I do welcome the fact that [Johnson’s] talking about it, because I think that’s good for the country, good for the world. In a sense, now let’s see who can really deliver at the scale that is required on jobs, on ambition, on fairness as well.”

Miliband describes tackling the climate emergency as something that requires work across a wide set of areas, with public and private investment working together. Green jobs, he explains, are about so much more than wind turbines, pointing to the need for low carbon engines in aerospace, manufacturing electric buses, investment in hydrogen technologies, the retrofitting of homes, and carbon capture and storage. 

Wind turbines are a key example of one of the problems facing politicians though: where are green jobs being created? As reported in The Times last week, in the government’s flagship policy to get all UK homes powered by offshore wind by 2030, only £20bn of the £50bn investment is expected to manifest in the UK, with most turbine parts currently made abroad. The UK share of capital expenditure was expected to reach only 50% by 2030.

“It makes the case harder to make if you don’t create the jobs in Britain,” says Miliband. “I represent the coal mining industry, we know what an unplanned transition looks like. That’s what happened in the 1980s, and we are still feeling the effects of it... this is why I say that advancing this stimulus money is the right thing to do for now.”

Another part of Labour’s plan was to boost investment in flood protection. Miliband’s own Doncaster North constituency was one of those under water in last winter’s devastating floods, causing at least 11 deaths and £150m worth of damage across affected areas.

“I think people don’t fully get the sense of loss and devastation of what flood means until it happens to people you know. I mean, honestly, I’m still – we’re just over a year on, and I’m still trying to help the poor people, some of whom are not back in their homes,” he says. 

“That’s a really important point about this, because it takes you to the justice or fairness question. You know, who is it that is worst affected? It’s often people who have the least. It’s not always, but it is often.”

The issue of fairness is part of Miliband’s wider criticism of the government’s approach. He points to the money set out for retrofitting housing to make it more energy efficient in July this year. “£50m of the £3bn was for social housing. Well, actually that’s not fair. That isn’t meeting the justice test,” he says. Housing currently is responsible for around 30% of the country’s carbon emissions; rather than pots of money for people to apply for to retrofit their homes, Miliband would like to see an organised street-by-street approach to make homes greener, with the government working with private companies.

And what does the social justice approach mean for another flagship announcement, the widespread roll out of electric vehicles? Although the Committee on Climate Change estimates that their lifetime cost will be the same as that of petrol or diesel engines within the next few years, electric vehicles currently cost an average of £10,000 more in upfront costs. 

While insisting he doesn’t want to make policy up on the hoof, Miliband does float the idea of giving people zero-interest loans to buy electric vehicles, paid back over a number of years, to equalise the cost upfront, so that they aren’t only accessible to the middle classes: “You’ve got to make it make economic sense for people.”

While tackling the climate crisis repeatedly polls as a priority for people in the UK across demographic and political divides, Miliband believes that the green movement needs to work on its messaging about the positive impact of a just transition to net zero for society today, such as more jobs and green spaces, walkable towns and cities, and improved air quality. 

“I sometimes say, you know, Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a nightmare’. He said, I have a dream,” Miliband says, “And disaster avoidance, of course, it’s important… But this is ultimately I think about better lives for people.”

For all this bold talk, there are rumours that the Leader of the Opposition’s Office has been stopping Miliband’s team from being as ambitious in their aims as they might like. 

“Definitely not,” he says. 

“There’s a rhythm to opposition. Six months or so since Keir became leader, that’s a different moment from six months before the election. But I think what we’re, what I’m trying to do in this area, is set out a clear direction of travel. What is that about? That is about ambition.”

When it comes to messaging, does he believe groups like Extinction Rebellion are helping or harming the cause? In particular, what of their recent protest at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday?

Miliband looks out the window and sighs. 

“Well, something like that of course is not right,” he says quickly. “I think that the thing I would say is, I think what people think about Extinction Rebellion, is we are sympathetic to their motivation and we didn’t like the disruption, right? And then there are the extreme ends, like when they tried to stop the train in the first phase.

“And obviously, look, I think people should obey the law. I think what’s interesting is when the first polls were taken about Extinction Rebellion, three to one people said well we support their aim, but we’re much more divided about their tactics.”

He continues: “Look protests cause disruption, but I think what protesters need to be incredibly careful about is not alienating people... I’m not, you know, I’m not obviously in Extinction Rebellion.”

He contrasts their behaviour with the “unalloyed positive” impact of the school strikers. “I think it has shown the younger generation really cares about this, and is sort of pricking the conscience of the older, the older generations.”

Looking ahead to the rescheduled COP26 in Glasgow next year, Miliband is emphatic about its importance – which he thinks is not fully appreciated among all his parliamentary colleagues.

“People will think all these summits come and go. But Glasgow is the moment where we’re supposed to be updating the Paris commitment. We’ve got to close the gap between the ambitions of Paris, which was no more than 1.5 degrees of warming, and the commitments that people actually made in Paris, which add up to about three degrees of warming. That is a massive gap. 

“And we’ve got 10 years to turn it around. And we only come back to these things every five years... That’s why I think there is a sense it’s more important than Paris actually.”

He believes the government should have three key priorities as the hosts of COP26: setting an international example for an ambitious green recovery; international finance for developing countries’ net zero efforts; and hammering home the importance of the 2030 targets.

This is like 193-dimensional chess, this COP thing. You’ve got 190 or some odd countries who have got to be part of this agreement

“China has said it will get to be carbon neutral by 2060, which is a really important move forward. But, it’s the next 10 years that are absolutely crucial,” he says. “This is like 193-dimensional chess, this COP thing. You’ve got 190 or some odd countries who have got to be part of this agreement. Now, the major emitters are a smaller number, 20 or so. But this is a massive job getting this right.”

We’re meeting the day before the Spending Review, but Miliband says he is “very anxious” about the impact of the trailed cuts to international development budgets. “That does have climate implications.”

He apologises to his staff: he’s about to break a promise not to talk about Gigatonnes, a unit of mass equal to 1,000,000,000 metric tons. “This is my nerdy side coming out again, but this is a really important thing,” he starts. 

“We are currently on track as the world for 55 Gigatonnes of emissions in 2030... To have 2 degrees of warming, you need to be at something like 41 Gigatonnes in 2030 over the world. And this is the sort of scary bit: to be at 1.5 degrees of warming, you need to be somewhere around 24 Gigatonnes. These are massive changes,” he warns. The only time emissions in any country have fallen anywhere near the 7.6% a year needed in recent times was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

From his side, Miliband is clear that he is committed to push the government to be as ambitious as possible in the next four years. He says doesn’t resile “one iota” from Labour’s 2019 commitment for the country to be most of the way to net-zero by 2030.

“If the Conservatives want a climate election in the next election, I say bring it on. We do need a climate election. We absolutely need a climate election... If the next climate election isn’t a climate election, we’ll be failing,” he says.

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