Mary Creagh: We are going from being a world leader on climate change to being a laggard
As she heads for the Arctic to witness first-hand the damage climate change is causing, Mary Creagh fears Britain is losing its place a world leader on decarbonisation. The chair of the Environmental Audit Committee talks to Elizabeth Bates
MPs on Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee are planning a trip to the Artic and its chair Mary Creagh is clear about what she wants to achieve. “We are hoping not to kill a polar bear,” she laughs.
Aside from leaving the wildlife unscathed, the expedition will also seek to improve Parliament’s grasp of the damage climate change is causing in the region – and the devastating impact it could have closer to home.
The arctic is suffering disproportionately already as global emissions cause temperature spikes and rising sea levels, she explains. And if Greenland’s ice sheets continue to melt at the same rate it would mean – Creagh puts it bluntly – “bye, bye London”.
Understanding the stark reality of climate change is what the visit is all about, and the Labour MP is keen that encompasses all aspects of the phenomenon.
The Changing Arctic Inquiry will look at plastic pollution in the oceans, the threat to the area’s five million inhabitants, and hear from British scientists working there about what can be done to reverse the effects.
Its purpose is to reinvigorate the UK’s commitment to tackling the problem, which Creagh suggests has suffered under the Conservatives, with the scrapping of key schemes on home insulation and solar panels as well as a growing reluctance to embrace onshore wind and other green initiatives.
“It’s hard in this country,” she says. “We are not very good at saying how we are going to decarbonise transport. We are terrible at saying how we are going to decarbonise heating and we are not saying anything about heavy industry…
“My concern is we are going from being a leader to being a laggard and that is a dangerous thing for us to be.”
As a leading advocate for global environmental action you would think she would be concerned about the US President Donald Trump’s scepticism on the issue, particularly after he abruptly pulled the plug on the Paris climate change agreement last year.
But for Creagh, there is another, much more dangerous threat on the horizon.
“The harm that will be done by Brexit over the next 40 years is much more worrying than the harm that Donald Trump can do over the next eight,” she says.
The Wakefield MP was one of only a handful of Labour backbenchers representing Brexit-backing constituencies to vote against Article 50, which pulled the trigger on the UK’s exit from the EU.
Looking back on the decision, she explains why she chose to take such a controversial stance. “I wasn’t elected by my constituents to go and do things in Parliament that would make them poorer and their lives less good. So, for me the basic raison d’être of politics – of good politics or good policy – is to make people’s lives better. I get very angry when I hear people saying ‘in 40 years’ time Britain will be great’… I haven’t got time for that.
“In forty years’ time I’ll be 90-years-old sitting with a rug on my lap and a mug of tea. I don’t want to spend the next 40 years waiting for things to be good. I want things to be good today, tomorrow, next week, next year for my children and my constituents and for the country.
“We can’t wait for some promised nirvana. I am not thinking in historical terms. Each person only has one life and the long run we are all dead. So, I’m very concerned.”
On whether she would go against her party and support a second EU referendum, she is hesitant, citing election fatigue among the public.
“There is definitely a weariness,” she says. “But I think what is clear is that Brexit is more complex, costly and time-consuming than anyone was promised. I think that the promises that the Leave campaign made have fallen at almost every hurdle. They don’t stand up to scrutiny.
“We need to see the shape of the deal that comes back and we need to guarantee that there is a meaningful vote in Parliament on that deal. What happens after that vote – whether it is accepted or rejected by parliament – I think then defines the next steps of if there is a general election or a people’s vote. But I think it is too early to say.”
In the meantime, she is focussed on ensuring that Britain’s environmental protections are not watered down during the Brexit process. Is it an issue that sparked a rebellion against the government in the Lords, with an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill designed to safeguard European standards gaining enough cross-party support to pass in the Upper Chamber.
It will be one of many battlegrounds for Theresa May when the legislation returns to the Commons, and Creagh is confident that ministers will have to back down or face another defeat.
“Now that it is coming back to the House of Commons we will be looking to support that amendment. And we are working on how we are going to do that, and potentially working with Conservative colleagues on making sure that there is no watering down of environmental standards if we leave the EU,” she says.
She is expecting “significant concessions,” but adds: “I am very clear, we need a watchdog with teeth, with powers not just to issue advisory notices which is what’s in the consultation, but the powers to start legal proceedings against the government and the powers to issue fines.
“If the government does the right thing they have nothing to fear from environmental fines. And if the Brexiteers promises about no watering down of environmental protections after Brexit are to be believed then nothing less than the same powers will be acceptable.”
And this is not the only policy area on which Creagh is pushing ministers to go further. According to the committee chair the government’s latest strategy to tackle air pollution does not go far enough. “It is weak on ambition,” she says.
“It only wants to halve the number of people living in areas with unsafe pollution levels by 2025, which in the lifetime of a child – if you have got a 5-year-old now or a 12-year-old now they’ll be an adult by the time these targets are met.”
What is needed, she continues, is a comprehensive shift in the way people travel, reallocating road space away from cars to public transport, cyclists and pedestrians.
“The only way we are going to cut air pollution is by fundamentally shifting people’s modes of travel to active travel. We know it’s good for us. We know that cities where people can move and people can breathe are places where people are happier, and where there is less air pollution.”
She advocates “radical” and “creative” solutions, including rolling out pedestrianisation across London. “We have already done it on Trafalgar Square and the traffic goes elsewhere,” she says.
And Parliament Square, the noise of which can currently be heard through her office window, is “the obvious next candidate”. “You go to other countries and they don’t have four lanes of traffic sitting outside their democratic buildings and it is very congested from a pedestrian point of view outside parliament.”
But while reducing the toxic air outside the building might have an obvious solution, the increasingly unpleasant atmosphere inside over Brexit continues to engulf the House.
For Creagh, she will be driven over the next few contentious months by one guiding principle.
“My constituents’ jobs are on the line here and I keep that front of centre of my focus when it comes to the votes in Parliament.”
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