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Labour needs a global climate strategy now

With its signature pledge to freeze UK energy prices proving popular, and the release of important commitments on energy market reform, decarbonisation, and security of supply, Labour’s shadow energy and climate team are firing on all cylinders. All except one: global...



With its signature pledge to freeze UK energy prices proving popular, and the release of important commitments on energy market reform, decarbonisation, and security of supply, Labour’s shadow energy and climate team are firing on all cylinders.

All except one: global climate policy.

Much of Labour’s bold domestic energy agenda addresses important non-climate objectives, namely the reliability and affordability of the UK’s future energy supply. The key climate measure on this agenda is the commitment to decarbonise completely the UK power sector by 2030. Yet the role of this measure in mitigating climate change (as distinct from enhancing energy security) has been under-explored.

Beating the government and big six over energy prices is undoubtedly more titillating than engaging with hair-splitting UN climate negotiations such as those occurring this week (incongruously, in coal-friendly Poland). But the monotony of the international talks obscures an important reality: Labour needs a global climate change strategy — and fast.

Climate change is a global problem that requires global solutions. The UK’s domestic and international climate policy is mediated in important ways by the EU, so it is not enough to have a domestic climate policy — even an ambitious one like power sector decarbonisation. Labour must think strategically and consider how its domestic policies could shape, and be shaped by, evolving climate action in the EU and globally.

There are three reasons why this is especially urgent.

First, the global climate debate is in flux at a crucial time. UK Labour has an historic opportunity to influence global climate policy. The UN climate conference in Paris — on which countries are pinning their hopes for agreeing a new international treaty — is set to occur in late 2015, within a new Labour government’s first seven months of office. Preparations for that conference began this year, and will intensify throughout 2014-2015, including a critical Climate Summit of world leaders in September 2014 convened by the UN secretary general.

A failure to shift the global emissions trajectory in the next few years could be catastrophic. But there is deep disagreement among key countries about nearly every aspect of the UN climate change agenda. I’m unconvinced that the rigid UN process is capable of supporting anything but marginal action on climate change. There is a strong risk that the Paris talks could collapse without reaching an agreement (a la Copenhagen), or that any agreement reached would be so compromised that it would be hollow and ineffective (as was the Kyoto Protocol).

Labour must therefore prepare to influence not only the development of the putative Paris treaty, but also an alternative set of commitments that could be agreed by a smaller group of willing countries. Small groups of select countries could achieve enormous emissions reductions through cooperative and coordinated actions alongside the UN process, complementing the latter’s laudable goals while sidestepping its head-bashing bureaucracy and suicidal procedural requirement for consensus among all 193 member states.

The second impetus for Labour to prepare its climate strategy now concerns Europe. The European Commission is currently consulting on the development of its 2030 climate framework, including the adoption of a 2030 emissions reduction target and reform of the troubled EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). This framework will likely be agreed before 2015 and will constrain the new government in two ways. It will constrain the UK’s international influence, since Britain is represented by the EU in international negotiations. Labour must therefore determine what it wants to achieve globally, then lobby the EU for a congruent EU framework.

The EU framework will also constrain the new government domestically. A Labour policy to decarbonise the UK power sector will only result in additional carbon abatement if the EU ETS is reformed so as to take account of this additional UK abatement effort (or at least a large portion of it). This could be done, for example, through amendments to EU ETS rules so as to permit such additional abatement to be recognised via the permanent removal of allowances. Labour should therefore also be lobbying the Commission for reforms of this nature.

Finally, Labour needs a climate strategy that coheres with its one nation philosophy. The prevailing paradigm of global climate discourse and policy — marked by “legally binding” treaties, emissions reduction targets and top-down carbon markets — is overly-centralised, technocratic, neo-liberal, and market-optimist. It sits uneasily with the communitarian, decentralised, pluralistic and market-realist philosophy of Miliband’s Labour.

If Labour gains power in 2015, it will hold office for the second half of the critical decade on climate change. There is a great opportunity for the left; one nation Labour provides, in my view, a rich foundation for Labour’s global climate strategy. But an unprepared incoming Labour government risks being pushed by global and European developments towards policy and rhetoric that contradicts its core values and puts the future of the planet in grave danger.

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