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Government is failing to act on the climate emergency

Government is failing to act on the climate emergency
3 min read

It is now two years since the Commons formally declared an environment and climate emergency. Yet few, if any, would argue that the period since has been marked by a response commensurate with that declaration.

That motion, moved by Labour, was a response to the publication of the UN’s Report on Global Warming of 1.5C, which made an unassailable case for “far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent” if we’re to prevent catastrophic climate change.

In the two years since then, and despite legislating for a 2050 net-zero target, successive Conservative governments have failed to act on emissions reduction with the urgency and purpose required. Indeed, as the Climate Change Committee has repeatedly pointed out, not only is the UK way off track to meet our legally binding net-zero target, we're not even on track to meet the less ambitious one that preceded it.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the government's response to the pandemic but there is no question that it has been treated as a crisis. With evidence of incipient climate breakdown now abundant, the accelerating climate and environment crisis must also be treated accordingly.

That’s why it is so disappointing that the Chancellor has now passed up three fiscal opportunities – the 2020 Summer Statement, the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review, and the 2021 Budget – to lock in a genuine green economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis. And his failure is not unique, with only 12 per cent of global stimulus spending being directed toward low-carbon projects – lower than the level of green spending we saw in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

The domestic example the UK sets in this critical year matters immensely

As hosts of both the G7 and COP26, the UK should be setting the pace in greening post-pandemic economies. Instead, it is other major economies that have raced ahead with ambitious stimulus packages geared toward rapid decarbonisation. Contrast President Biden’s $2.3 trillion green infrastructure plan, and the tens of billions of euros Germany and France are pouring into low-carbon initiatives, with the UK Government’s Ten-Point Plan that entailed just £4 billion of new funding; it just doesn’t come close to matching the scale of the jobs crisis or the climate emergency we face.

The domestic example the UK sets in this critical year matters immensely. As John Kerry, the new US special presidential envoy for climate, recently argued, the COP26 summit is the world’s “last best chance” to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. As its hosts, we have a solemn duty to provide the necessary leadership to secure an outcome that keeps alive the hope of limiting global heating to 1.5C.

That means undisputedly leading by example. Yet whether it’s undermining our country’s impressive record in phasing out coal-fired power by flirting with a new coal mine in Cumbria or damaging the UK’s standing with countries on the frontline of the climate crisis by slashing the overseas aid budget, Ministers continue to undercut the UK’s claim to climate leadership.

With recent UN analysis indicating that current climate pledges will only achieve emissions reductions of one per cent by the end of this critical decade, not the 45 per cent required to stay below 1.5C, the Government needs to be straining every sinew to secure greater ambition and action from individual countries. A prerequisite of doing so is a comprehensive net-zero strategy and a bold green stimulus package sufficient to finally put us decisively on track for net-zero. Only in that way can we start to treat climate breakdown as the emergency we declared it was two years ago.

Matthew Pennycook is Labour MP for Greenwich and Woolwich and shadow minister for climate change

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