For the Many … and the One

If there are seminal moments in politics, Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the 2018 Labour Conference will go down as one of then. This was when the planet took centre stage.

From the Kerala floods to the Saddleworth moorland fires, and from California to Scandinavia, 2018 has been a roller coaster of extreme weather events. This is the shape of things to come. But it took Corbyn to make ‘one planet economics’ the centrepiece of tomorrow’s politics.

This couldn’t have come at a better moment. The Conservatives are tearing themselves apart – with their crazies loving every moment. It guaranteed a complete disregard of the most profound event during their conference week – the new IPCC report on climate change.

The IPCC now warn that the 1.5C global warming limit will be breached, not in 2100 but by 2040.

But at the Tory conference who cared? Delegates queued to see Boris Johnson strut his ‘Trump without the intellect’ impersonation as a Leadership alternative to May’s ‘Thatcher without the compassion’. Comedy as tragedy ruled supreme.

Humanity deserves something better…especially since the IPCC warn that their most positive projections rely on the widespread use of negative emissions technologies that do not yet exist. We need a better plan.

Corbyn and McDonnell to the rescue

It was into this maelstrom that Jeremy Corbyn pitched his Leader’s Speech; a bold vision, promising that Labour’s

“programme of investment and transformation, to achieve a 60% reduction in emissions by 2030, will create over 400,000 skilled jobs.

Pretty unequivocal stuff. But that is just the start. Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell was no less uncompromising. His own pledge was to

… re-programme the Treasury, rewriting its rule books on how it makes decisions about what, when, and where to invest… And we’ll make sure it assesses spending decisions against the need to tackle climate change.”

Seen through the prism of IPCC warnings that followed, this was the ground-breaking vision Britain desperately needs.

Historically, the Treasury has been unwilling to even answer questions about climate change or environmental impact. McDonnell intends to tear up the their ‘Green Book’, replacing it with one based on climate science not political convenience. The Treasury will have to become the driver of climate based economics, not the obstruction to it.

An economic metamorphosis

In practical terms, the UK will have to cut its carbon emissions in half within the coming decade, then do so again in the decade that follows (and the one after that). But it is what happens in the first 10 years – the next 2 parliaments – that will determine whether Britain ends up trying to manage turbulence or survive the chaos. When McDonnell talks about a transformative parliament this is precisely what he means. The implications are massive.

The next government will have to deliver carbon reductions of 15% per year. To do so, Britain will need a much more circular economics; not one that makes do with less, but one that certainly wastes and pollutes less. And as Corbyn stressed, it is in ‘Green jobs’ that tomorrow’s transformative

economics will be rooted.

If you thought income differentials were polarised, just wait ’til you look at carbon footprints. As Oxfam has pointed out, half of today’s global CO2 emissions come from the lifestyles of the richest 10%.

In Britain, if the richest 10% had their emissions cut to the level of the average EU citizen it would cut UK carbon emissions by 30%. Not a bad place to start.

Then, Labour might want to follow Norway’s example, waging its own war on plastics waste. Norway taxes the production of all plastic bottles, and has linked it to a national deposit/return scheme.

All plastic bottles are bar-coded. The public then pays a 10p deposit on a small bottle (25p on a large) all of which is refundable via machines in shops and precincts throughout the land. Manufacturers can even make their own plastics tax ‘optional’ – but only if they recycle over 90% of their bottles … which they have done since 2011.

This is what lies behind the 95% recycling rate Norway proudly boasts of. In Britain, Labour could do the same, extending it to include cans.

The Age of Carbon Budgeting

One way or another, the UK Treasury will have to set carbon budgets that spending Departments (and localities) will have to live within. The good news is that this will force the the economy to shift from dumb and dirty into smart and clean.

For most people, a more circular economy would deliver real improvements in their quality of life, -from the air we breathe, the food we eat, the homes we live in, to the jobs and skills the country needs. This will come not just in the accelerated shift into renewable energy, but in using less energy in the first place. Tackling the scandal of ‘cold homes’ will save lives as well as cutting carbon.

Clean transport systems offer the same opportunities. These are a world away from the triple absurdity of the GMB trade union sharing a platform with the Taxpayers Alliance, at the Tory Party conference, in support of Fracking. Putting so many absurdities in the same space does not make them climate credible. ‘Smart’ starts from somewhere else.

Over the next couple of years EV’s will become cheaper than fossil fuel vehicles. Smart towns and cities are already talking of whole networks of recharging points, linked to solar roofs, local wind turbines or smart grids.

Nissan and Solar Century have jumped the queue, offering ‘smart’ packages – a solar roof, battery storage, an EV charging point and a Nissan Leaf – selling the virtues of clean everything. On the railways, Alstom have begun converting the first batch of diesel trains to run on hydrogen.

Such approaches will not only ‘leave the carbon in the ground’ but dramatically cut the UK cost of imported diesel fuels. Step back from the technologies and you will see the skill sets (and jobs) that could race Britain into a cleaner future.

To boldly go…

One of the few organisations willing to dive into this economics of consuming ‘less’ has been the Green Alliance. Their reports “Less in, More out” and “Completing the Circle” set out the real job opportunities (and carbon savings) that lie within Britain’s reach.

Changing the way we design and build houses, how we produce the food, clothing and appliances we use, and how extending the life of products could save as much as 200MtCO2 over the coming decade. Recycling and re-using resources could do much the same.

Britain currently imports 12.3m tonnes of iron ore a year. But we produce an annual 10m tonnes of scrap iron and steel too. Some 70% of this gets exported, when it could form the basis of a revived domestic steel industry.

One third of all UK steel demand goes into vehicles. But if design standards were raised, particularly for EV’s, vehicle lifespans could be 50% longer … with all the carbon savings that go with it. And if a precondition of public support was that the heat involved in steel production had to be channelled into local heat networks, the public benefits (and carbon savings) would be spread further still.

Sustainable building design offers the same rewards. In Germany, ‘passive haus’ and ‘energy plus’ designs have delivered up to 75% reductions in the carbon footprint of conventional buildings, as well as giving people warmer homes.

‘Waste not’ economics

Each year, Britain discards over 1.5m tonnes of electrical goods; mainly due to the high cost of repair. Sweden has begun to reverse this trend, cutting VAT on repairs and raising taxes on new purchases instead. In Britain, 55% of people say they would happily buy recycled goods at the right price. You just have to create markets that reward repair instead of replacement. Doing so not only creates jobs, but would save over 1MtCO2/year.

UK food waste is no less of an embarrassment; particularly given the numbers now dependant on food banks and the looming prospect of food scarcities.

UK households currently waste 20% of the food we buy; discarding over 7.3 million tonnes/year. This is more than anywhere else in Europe and 5 times as much (per household) as the Czech Republic. The food we throw away is responsible for 19m tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. Over 60% of the food could have been eaten. More sensible storage and use policies would save carbon and feed families at the same time.

Then we come to clothing. The High St may feel itself under pressure, but many of the answers lie in lower rents rather than cheaper goods. ‘Fast fashion’ makes huge demands on the world’s carbon budgets. The carbon cost is never reflected in the cost of fibre production or processing.

Meanwhile, in your and my wardrobes, 1 in 3 items have not been worn in over a year. Some shops have started to receive and recycle clothing. Others offer alteration services that can give new leases of life to perfectly good clothing. It just means creating markets that favour adaptation and reuse over the short term consumption of (almost) instantly disposable goods.

My mum would have definitely approved…and so would the planet … with clothing recycling alone saving another 1million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year within the UK.

The really good life

This is not austerity economics. It is a new approach that manages the earth’s limited resources more responsibly. A Labour government could take Britain into this ‘sustainable’ space. And it would not even have to be the first to do so.

Japan has already shown how government leadership can drive business resource efficiency. Germany’s Resource Efficiency Programme (ProgRess) now tracks such efficiency in different sectors of the economy, setting targets designed to double the country’s resource efficiency by 2020.

This is a path along which Britain can rediscover old skills, connect them to new technologies, measure them against carbon footprints and build a culture of 21st century resilience that is capable of living sensibly through whatever extreme weather events lie ahead.

For centuries, humanity understood that life involved putting back more than we took out. It was the gift of one generation to the next. Whatever your persuasion – Tory, Labour, Lib Dem or other – everyone knew this was what ‘citizenship’ involved. Everything changed in 1979 when Thatcher turned Britain into a nation of ‘consumers’. Since then, British society has shopped its way towards the abyss.

Science tells us we are now at the edge. We can embrace the Corbyn vision of a smarter, cleaner, more secure and equitable future … or just ‘shop ’til we drop’ with the Tories. The choice is still ours … but only just.

Alan Simpson

October 2018

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