Yesterday the Labour party conference voted to adopt a Green New Deal and decarbonise Britain by 2030. It’s remarkable how quickly this has come together, considering the Labour for a Green New Deal campaign group only got up and running this year. It’s come from the grassroots, and commits the party to exactly the kind of radical climate action I was talking about yesterday. And it is a radical departure: it puts Labour on the same footing as the Green Party.
There are of course some immediate questions – how exactly will that be done? Are people actually ready for the kinds of lifestyle changes involved, despite what they say in surveys? And perhaps the most common response – is it even possible?
Among those declaring it impossible were Tim Roache of the GMB union, which opposed the vote. He called it “utterly unachievable”. James Murray of Business Green tweeted that 2030 was “interesting… by which I mean all but impossible” .
Extinction Rebellion get the same response to their demand for zero carbon by 2025. That’s even more extreme, but both of these dates represent profound change – a genuine revolution in energy, industry and lifestyle. It will take huge investment, a massive mobilisation of skills and finance towards renewable energy, circular economies, public transport, and retrofitting our homes and buildings. Polluting industries will need to be closed down. Very common habits will have to change. Are ordinary people ready for that? Do we have the materials and personnel? Can we train the skilled workforce it would need? Can we tame the vested interests that will fight it every step of the way?
It’s easy to see why the question of feasibility comes up so readily. On the face of it, yes – it could well be impossible. I have serious doubts myself about that. But that in itself is not a reason not to do something. Here are three reasons why we should aim high on decarbonisation, and not get hung up on the question of possibility.
We don’t know what’s possible and what isn’t. ‘Impossible’ is never a fact in advance. It is proved to be so, or not, by trying it. Impossible things can and do happen. Donald Trump is president of the United States. Elon Musk‘s entire career. Renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels in a growing number of places. The world’s most powerful climate change campaigner is a Swedish teenager with Asperger’s. We don’t know whether decarbonising by 2030 is possible or not, but it’s easy and convenient to say it isn’t and then we don’t try.
There is nothing to lose. If we pitch for 2030 and we fail, so what? Britain will be zero carbon by 2033, or 2037. If we stick with 2050 it may be too late, especially if we keep thinking that 2050 is a long way off and action can come later. A closer target gives us a sense of urgency and purpose. We will move faster. And if it’s done as part of a just transition, a low carbon world can also be a cleaner, healthier and fairer one. Perhaps it will prove impossible, but it’s a no regrets policy. It’s the later date that carries the greater risk.
It’s the right thing to do. As Tim Jackson has set out recently, a more ambitious target would reflect Britain’s historical contribution and our higher per capita emissions, and so we should move quicker to end our contribution to climate change. It’s the right thing to do by the communities that are being devastated today by the climate crisis. It’s the right thing to do by our young people, who feel betrayed at the decades of inaction that has put their world at risk. I’m with E F Schumacher on this one, who said that “we must do what we conceive to be the right thing, and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we are going to be successful.”
Yes, I hear some of you saying, but how? Idealism is all very well, but where’s the plan? Labour have set out a whole bunch of new policies this week that I might come back to another time, though it won’t add up to full decarbonisation by 2030. That work will have to start now – and in the process, that date may yet move or turn out to be advisory. We’ll see.
Like possibility, the lack of a masterplan isn’t a reason to dismiss zero carbon targets either. We should be wary of masterplans – in a democracy, it should be something we work out together. And we can always take a leaf out of Mette Frederiksen’s book. She is prime minister of Denmark, which has already set itself the ‘impossible’ task of net zero by 2030. “How are we going to do that?” she told Climate NYC this week. “Frankly we don’t have all of the answers. And if I did have all the answers, the ambition wouldn’t be big enough.”