Environment

Labour's plan for the climate and nature: The good, the bad and the glaringly absent

There’s a Climate and Nature Bill hole in Labour’s manifesto – but the plan can’t be kicked down the road, climate activists say

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner announce new grey belt Labour housebuilding plan

Labour deader Keir Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner look out from a home under construction during a visit to the Nightingale Quarter in Derby as they announced the party's new policy to ensure Britain builds affordable family homes. Image: Darren Staples / Getty Images

“The climate and nature crisis is the greatest long-term global challenge that we face.” Labour is right to spell this out in its 2024 manifesto. But in the 134-page plan, Labour has missed out essential policies that must be pushed forwards in the next parliament – if Keir Starmer is truly serious about tackling the climate and nature emergencies we face.

The positives. Labour’s aiming to expand nature-rich habitats (such as wetlands, peat bogs and forests) as part of moving to a circular economy – planting millions of trees and creating new woodlands along the way. They aim to end the unforgivable pollution of our rivers and seas by putting failing water firms under special measures to clean their mess – blocking bosses’ bonuses, with fines and criminal charges for the worst law-breakers. 

They say they’ll reclaim the UK’s global climate and nature leadership role via an international Clean Power Alliance. And at home, there’ll be no new coal licences – a ban fracking for good – and a new windfall tax on oil and gas giants. There’s the goal of expediting the just transition to a clean energy future – including via GB Energy, which aims to reduce our bills and create 650,000 well-paying, green jobs – with no community left behind.

The negatives. Announcements to revoke existing oil and gas licences, like Rosebank, and to end outrageous fossil fuel subsidies were entirely absent. New fossil fuel production is completely incompatible with our last, best chance for 1.5°C – the 2015 global warming limit the world agreed in Paris. What we needed to see was an end to all fossil fuels, as part of an equitable plan to cut emissions rapidly, now, in line with Britain’s fair share of the remaining global carbon budget. Yes, Labour will require FTSE 100 companies to implement transition plans that align with the Paris Agreement. But why shouldn’t ministers be made to meet the same standards it sets businesses? Where’s the obligation on the government to have a “credible 1.5°C plan”?

Cosigning coal, (Liz Truss’ old favourite) fracking, and new oil and gas licences to history is the right thing to do. But Labour must go further. The Conservatives and some in the SNP are trying to make North Sea oil and gas a dividing line in this election, but this is failing not only to attract votes. It’s failing younger generations’ chance for inheriting a liveable future. If Labour really want to turn the page, it must reverse these catastrophic Tory policies to truly become “the party of change”.

On nature, Labour plans to deliver the Conservatives’ Environment Act targets. But here’s the kicker: the 2021 Environment Act doesn’t go far enough. We need to not only halt nature’s decline, but reverse its destruction by 2030. This would show true leadership, and lock – what the UK has already committed to do internationally into national law. The Environment Act also doesn’t deal with the damage that the UK causes through our global ecological footprint. So while we may be aiming to conserve our nature-depleted island, we’re also destroying key ecosystems that all nations depend on. Yes, Labour say it’ll work in partnership with communities to protect and restore our natural world. As it’s the most vulnerable who suffer the most from the impact of climate change and nature breakdown, this manifesto should have committed – as the Green manifesto and the Lib Dems’ plan did – to involve us, the people, via citizens’ assemblies as part of agreeing the fairest way forward, together.

There are some sound ideas, especially the pledge for clean power by 2030, and a welcome shift from the endless backsliding, U-turns and downright dangerous proposals by the Tories. However, for what’s referred to tackling as the “biggest” long-term threat we face, Labour can’t stop here. This manifesto needed to represent the “change” we’re being told Keir Starmer will deliver. “Preparing for the future,” we’re told, “means tackling the climate and nature emergencies.” But what Labour’s plan is lacking is the ambition, or vision, we need to truly rise to the dual crises we face. 

It’s not just us calling on Labour to plug the gaps in their plan. On Monday, 408 climate scientists published an open letter warning that “any leader who doesn’t make stronger climate action a priority will place the prosperity and wellbeing of the British people at severe risk. [And they won’t] deserve support in the election.” This warning followed a call for action from 186 conservation scientists, who urged the leaders to pledge to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 via a new, whole-government approach to tackling the ecological emergency. “Nature recovery is not a major priority, despite its loss being a major risk to our nation, and despite it being a high priority for the public.”

These ideas have been around for a long time, so Keir Starmer can’t claim the scientists’ letters got lost in the post. What we really needed to see from Labour was a legislative commitment to follow in the footsteps of Gordon Brown – the prime minister who passed the (then groundbreaking) Climate Change Act in 2008. This manifesto was a golden opportunity for Labour to announce new legislation to give the whole of the UK a crystal clear vision for how we’ll tackle the climate and nature crises, together.

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Our worry is that Labour has decided to kick the can down the road. Just like every government before them. The difference is that we’re rapidly running out of road – as the next government will be the last one to take power before we reach 2030 – when we need to have slashed emissions and put nature loss firmly in reverse. It’s literally now or never to make the changes we need to see in order to secure a liveable future for us, our families, and our communities – at home and across the world – and for that, we need a government we can trust.

A recent poll commissioned by The Wildlife Trusts showed that the majority of the public think the main parties are failing to tackle the climate-nature crisis. According to professor Rebecca Willis, a climate expert at Lancaster University, politicians are misjudging not only the science, but also the public. MPs “consistently underestimate people’s support for bold climate policies – and so they keep quiet. Meanwhile, citizens worry about the climate crisis and don’t see politicians responding. It’s a silent stand-off, which damages the climate and erodes trust in politics.” This is heartbreaking, as there’s a clear way out of this bind. Offer voters a positive vision, combined with practical policies which bring emissions down, restore nature, and improve our quality of life.

On both emissions reductions and nature restoration, there’s a widening ambition gap between where we’re headed and where we need to aim for. This is why the Conservative government was defeated not once – but twice – in the High Court over its lacklustre climate plans – and why more than 80 nature groups are also launching a legal challenge to the delivery of the Conservatives’ unambitious wildlife plans. The Conservatives have spent the last 14 years failing to tackle the climate and nature crisis. The result? Rising temperatures, flooded homes, filthy air, vanishing wildlife and sewage in our rivers.

On the basis of this manifesto though, Labour has regrettably decided to play it safe. Much too safe. Which is ironic, but it’s our safety, our prosperity, and our security that’s at stake. But it’s not too late. There’s new legislation, ready and waiting to go, to tackle the climate and nature crises in a joined up way. The Climate and Nature Bill – or CAN Bil – will enshrine the UK’s internationally-agreed targets into law to ensure that we fairly and fully account for our greenhouse gas emissions (including those we import from overseas). It will ensure that there’s a just transition away from deadly fossil fuels and towards a renewable energy future – protecting the most vulnerable in our society as do so – and ensuring that the public is part of the big decisions we will need to make as we reorganise how we live, work, travel, and eat.

The CAN Bill was most recently introduced into the Commons by Labour’s Alex Sobel with cross-party support from MPs and peers across the spectrum, including Lord John Bird. Like all legislation, it ‘fell’ when parliament was dissolved for the election – but it’s drafted and ready to go when the new MPs take their seats on 17 July.

In the current election period, the CAN Bill is growing in support. It has the support of more than 900 would-be MPs – including 90 Labour candidates – and has the official support of the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Alliance and Greens (who’ve made it a manifesto commitment). It’s welcome that the Labour leadership said they support “the aims and ambitions” of the bill. But more than that, Labour members and CLPs are backing it. So are Sadiq Khan and Tracy Brabin. And Sir David King, Lord Zac Goldsmith and Chris Packham – as well as Triodos Bank, The W.I., Arup, Ecotricity and hundreds of faith groups, charities and NGOs.

So why doesn’t Labour adopt this legislation as its own? That’s what we’re calling on our local Labour candidates to do now – and so can you.That’s what thousands of us will be calling for at the ‘Restore Nature Now’ march on 22 June. And that’s what we all need to do, if (and when) Labour forms the next Government. 

Keir Starmer. Will you champion the bold, new legislation we need and ensure that the next five years are spent – acting on the science – and securing a brighter, safer, more prosperous future for all? You CAN be the change. Back this bill.

Dominique Palmer is a climate justice activist, writer and Planetary Award winner. Nell Miles is a nature campaigner, Oxford University researcher and Woodland Trust youth council member. Tori Tsui is a climate activist, speaker and author of It’s Not Just You.

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