Electing a Corbyn government that can implement a green industrial revolution is the essential next step to taking on climate change, argues Alex Snowdon
The election is on – and the stakes are very high. This can potentially be a watershed election comparable to 1945 or 1979. Politics is highly polarised, with Labour promoting a substantially different direction for society to the Tories, but also to the whole of the last four decades of neoliberal politics.
The scope and ambition required must be at least equal to that of 1945, an election that led to major nationalisations, the founding of the NHS and large-scale building of social housing. A major reason - perhaps the biggest reason of all - for this election being momentous is the climate emergency. The ecological crisis has been accelerated by neoliberal capitalism globally and only radical, systemic changes will get anywhere near addressing it.
Last week, Labour announced its most ambitious plans for tackling climate change to date. The obsession with Brexit and parliamentary business may have obscured the news, but the latest proposals are a leap forward for Labour’s climate policy. In fleshing out the idea of a Green New Deal, they indicate how a left-led Labour government could address the climate emergency.
Radical change to break from neoliberalism
The latest announcements provide an opportunity to consider the possibilities of a Green Industrial Revolution: why it matters and what it might involve. It is crucial to recognise that climate change is a social, economic and political issue, so the solutions have to be political and very ambitious. Discussion of climate change has long been dominated by questions of consumption and personal choices, yet it is abundantly clear that individual solutions are inadequate.
The increasing focus on a Green Industrial Revolution – and its equivalent, the Green New Deal, in the US – reflects a very welcome shift. We know that the Tories, as the party of the capitalist class, are incapable of responding to the climate crisis. Confronting climate change requires confronting corporate interests and breaking from the neoliberal obsession with privatisation and market competition. For the Tories – as for the big business elites they represent - short-term profit always comes before the needs of people or planet.
Labour was for a long time not much better. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 signposted a big change. Breaking the old consensus increasingly includes developing policies that go beyond the notion of ‘green capitalism’ and tinkering with the system. In particular, the adoption of Green New Deal policies at Labour’s conference in September was a breakthrough.
This hasn’t come from nowhere. There has been a real upsurge in activity around the climate emergency over the last year or so. That is true here and worldwide, taking a number of forms: from the widespread direct action of Extinction Rebellion to the burgeoning Youth Climate Strike movement, which has involved millions of mainly school students taking to the streets.
Together with these explosive movements of popular protest, Labour’s growing adoption of serious climate policies has pushed the climate change question up the political agenda. It could be a critical issue influencing how people vote in December in a way that has never really been true before, even as recently as 2017.
Towards ‘net-zero’ in 2030
What is most hopeful in the current debates is the recognition of the need for real transformation, combined with a strong sense of how proposals encompass a range of areas – such as housing, transport and public ownership – as well as being directly concerned with the environment. It is therefore an integral part of any agenda for social and economic justice.
The ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030 is an important starting point. It indicates the scale needed, but also the urgency. The government’s official target of 2050 is so distant as to be meaningless. A green industrial revolution can only be delivered if there is public ownership of utilities like gas and electricity, and of our transport infrastructure such as the railways. Nationalisation is vital, but continues to be taboo for the Tories.
It is important that trade unions, despite some understandable reservations, are increasingly supportive. Some unions have concerns about job losses, but a big part of the challenge is ensuring that doesn't happen. The notion of diversification is central, with the emphasis on creating well-paid and skilled new jobs in socially useful, eco-friendly industries.
A million climate jobs has been a focus for much of the left for years and this is the scale required. The idea of a just transition is about recognising the dangers to people’s livelihoods and the need for coordinated planning and public investment that avoids such dangers.
The policies we need
There are a number of crucial aspects to any green industrial revolution. Three things especially are worth highlighting. Firstly, energy. There needs to be a massive shift toward renewable energy sources. Wind power is likely to be a particularly major source and the recent announcement by Labour - to invest massively in new wind farms and create tens of thousands of jobs in the sector - is very welcome.
The investment needs to go together with public ownership and control (and, with that, greater coordination). This is an area where the need for a just transition - for seriously thought-through plans to make use of workers’ skills and protect their jobs - is vital.
Secondly, transport. This is the area where the least progress has been made – in reducing carbon emissions - over the last 30 years. Public transport is privatised, overpriced and the victim of cuts. We need to turn that around. That means not just taking trains and buses fully into public ownership and control, but investing massively in them.
That investment needs to involve improving infrastructure and services for people. It also means reducing costs. Ultimately we need free public transport if we are to rise to the scale of the challenge. Transport should be seen in the same way as health and education - as a social good paid for through general taxation, not as a highly privatised sphere.
Thirdly, housing. About one sixth of U.K. carbon emissions are from people’s homes. Rather than lecturing people about making individual changes, there needs to be a political solution.
That means two things. One is transforming the insulation of homes and replacing gas-fired heating with eco-friendly alternatives. That can only be done on a serious scale if invested in centrally by government. The other thing is ensuring very high ecological standards when building new homes - and indeed building such homes on a large scale.
These are the sorts of changes needed - it is crucial that politicians and campaigners think big. We should recognise the myriad ways in which dealing with climate change is tied up with a larger project of political and social transformation. Electing a left-led Labour government is the essential next step, but of course it won’t end there. We will need an ongoing mass movement to make these changes a reality.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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