For too long the severity and scale of the climate crisis has been deliberately understated, but October’s release of the IPCC’s Special Report on the Global Warming of 1.5°c finally sent shockwaves into the populations of rich countries. The urgent need for action was clear with the world now in ‘decade zero’, when every decision taken in the coming years will determine the extent to which the critical 1.5°c guardrail is breached triggering run away climate change. Despite these warnings the UN estimates that current emission targets will put the world on a trajectory of at least 3.4°c and possibly up to 7°c warming.
The report was of course not news to people living in the global South, they had long been dealing with the devastating impacts of climate change – warming of just 1c has been enough to unleash killer floods, droughts and famines. In every corner of the world climate violence has already been exacting a heavy toll on the poorest and most vulnerable. In Dominica, a single hurricane caused damages worth 224% of the country’s GDP and set back development gains by a generation; in Mozambique, a single storm destroyed 90% of a major port city and has left a million people facing starvation, with the country currently reeling from yet another super charged cyclone; in the Indian subcontinent heat waves of 53.5°c have already condemned one third of the regions glaciers to irreversible melting that will affect access to fresh water and food production for billions; in Colombia, worsening drought threatens to wipe out the indigenous Wayuu people; and in the Philippines, where close to 2 million people are still struggling to cope five years after Typhoon Haiyan killed 7,000 people.
The most conservative estimates are that each year close to a million lives in the global south are already being claimed by the violence of climate change with countless many more millions losing their homes and livelihoods. The climate crisis also fans the existing flames of economic inequality and poverty, resulting in a deepening crisis of hunger, increased conflict and deepening existing racial and gender inequalities. All of which determine the very ability of people to survive climate impacts and to adapt to, and respond to, the realities of the climate crisis.
The sense of panic in the global North that propelled Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist and the youth climate strike she inspired, along with the Extinction Rebellion into a new wave of climate protests, has led to climate change hurtling up the political agenda. The demand for urgent action has of course long been made by peoples movements in the global South, the ones most impacted by the climate crisis, but has been systematically ignored by policy makers, who calculated that sacrificing people in the global South was an acceptable price of continuing business as usual.
It is welcome news that the Labour Party has announced that it is responding to this growing chorus for action by backing calls for a climate emergency, and its public announcements that it will be setting out plans to tackle the climate crisis that also address the failed policies of austerity that has driven record levels of inequality in the UK.
But action in the UK can’t be done at the expense of the poorest in the world, the ones least responsible for the crisis and most impacted. Whilst climate change is fundamentally an issue of the global commons, and needs a global response. It’s also true that it can only be resolved if the action being proposed by all countries is both fair and ambitious, and that it also addresses at its core the crisis of climate inequality, where the poorest 50% of the world’s population who are responsible for only 10% of global emissions are the ones most impacted. Meanwhile, the richest 10%, mostly in rich countries like the UK, are responsible for 50% of all global emissions are being least impacted.
The starting point for any climate emergency is the recognition that the bloody legacy of slavery, colonialism, neoliberalism and the climate crisis – has laid the foundations of the wealth of this country and shapes its ability to respond to the climate crisis. It is this continued exploitation of both the people & the natural resources of the global South, that has left half of world’s population barely surviving on $5 a day whilst propelling the UK to becoming the 5th richest country in the world with the third highest per capita consumption in the world.
Labour’s climate emergency agenda must therefore be rooted in the obligation for the UK to do its fair share of global effort to prevent a breach of the critical 1.5c guardrail. A genuine commitment must meet the requirements of both the science and equity and would see Labour accept that its true goal must be meeting its obligation of a -247% emissions reduction by 2030. In practice that means the UK not only delivers a goal of total decarbonisation by 2030, and refuses to accept the politically dangerous net zero target that allows business as usual whilst banking on dangerous technological fixes, it also means that under the polluters pay principle – Labour must set out a concrete plan to support poorer countries to pick up part of the UK’s share of the effort and cut their emissions faster and deeper than they are obliged to, which requires a huge transfer of finance and technology. That is on top of the UK’s obligation to provide financial support for countries in the global South to help those on the frontline adapt to the realities of climate change and to pay its climate debt so that the poorest in the world aren’t left picking up the tab for the damage that the UK is responsible for.
The reality is that Climate change has actually been good business for rich countries. Between 1961 and 2000, climate change has dampened per capita incomes in the worlds poorest countries by between 17 and 30 per cent. Whilst rich countries in the global North such as Norway, grew 34% richer.
Labour’s climate emergency therefore needs to include bold plans to tackle the City of London – which contributes 22% of the UK’s GDP and has been protected by successive governments be they Conservative or Labour. A 1/3 of the value of the FTSE is currently generated by the extractive industry, up from a 1/10 a decade ago. UK companies are drilling for oil in 26 African countries, with the value of shares of mining companies in the City of London worth more than the entire GDP of all sub Saharan Africa.
Business as usual, tinkering around the edges is simply not an option. Neither are voluntary codes and pledges. What is needed is legislation to make energy a public good, the extraction, production and delivery of energy can no longer be the preserve of private profit making companies, they must be placed under democratic control. Similarly the destructive industrial agri-business must be broken up, which is responsible for up to 30% of global emissions and leaves a billion hungry. A start would be ending the ½ trillion in global subsidies that result in the majority of the worlds land being used to feed rich consumers whilst 70% of the world rely on food produced on just 25% of available land.
Labours plans must make all UK companies legally responsible for all parts of the supply chains, including all its environmental and social impacts including a Living Wage for all the worlds citizens and not only British workers. It can start by announcing it is taking on the power of the City of London and not simply announce taxes on destructive companies but break up their business model by a legal duty that all investment decisions must meet contribute to tackling climate change and inequality.
Plans for a green industrial strategy that are prefaced on continuing extraction are simply not realistic. The notion that we can simply switch from an economy powered by fossil fuels to one powered by renewable energy is simply not an option. Renewable technologies require huge mineral resources that will not only result in yet another wave of damaging environmental damage for the most vulnerable countries, but fails to recognise that the reserves of the very rare earth metals needed, such as cobalt for electric batteries, can openly meet 1/5th of global need. The priority must be tackling energy poverty which has left nearly 1.8 billion people without access to electricity or clean cooking. Labour should commit to leading a renewable energy revolution that delivers people-owned energy.
Politicians need to be truthful about the changes to our economy – making sure it’s not the poorest in our country who are left paying the price. But equally, we can’t sacrifice the poorest in the world to protect our economy.
We need a global green deal for people that guarantees everyone the right to a dignified life. Seven decades after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Labour should commit to making the right to housing, education, health and public services a reality for the many and not just the few.