Caroline Lucas – 2020 Speech on a Green Industrial Revolution

Below is the text of the speech made by Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, in the House of Commons on 15 January 2020.

I will start with a few words about the maiden speeches that we have had the privilege of hearing this afternoon, and I single out that by the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). I completely agreed with her powerful and uncompromising statement about climate change and austerity, and I completely agree that Parliament should be moved out of Westminster. I am perfectly happy to check out Coventry South as a possible new venue, but we should be decentralising far more of the institutions of government and Parliament.

There is new evidence every day of the increasing scale of the climate emergency. Just yesterday, scientific analysis showed that ocean temperatures have hit a record high as the rate at which our planet is heating increases. Yet, despite the weight of the irrefutable and overwhelming evidence, the UK continues to do far too little, far too late to cut greenhouse gas emissions from every sector of our economy. In a year when the COP26 climate talks will be hosted in Glasgow, it is time to demonstrate real climate leadership, not just talk about it. While I welcome the Government’s decision to invest in a green industrial revolution, I will set out how their approach is not up to the task in three fundamental ways.

We need Ministers to start speaking the truth. The Prime Minister claimed that the UK is leading the world on tackling climate change, and we have heard the same thing from other Members on the Front Bench, yet they have already been pulled up on that claim on several occasions, with people pointing out that, for example, ​the figures look an awful lot less impressive when we factor in consumption emissions. When we do that, we see that emissions have fallen by just 10% over the past 20 years, which is nowhere near enough. What is more, historical reductions are no indicator of future progress. Coal is now all but gone from the power sector, meaning that the biggest source of reductions so far has now been exhausted, and there is little sign of the policy required to ensure that the necessary reductions continue. The truth is that if the Government’s green revolution includes spending on new roads, bailing out failing airlines, and promoting more airport expansion, they will remain part of the problem, not the solution.

A target of 2050 is not leadership. When someone’s house is on fire, they do not dial 999 and ask for a fire engine in 30 years’ time; they want the fire engine right now because the crisis is happening right now. Targets on their own do not bring down emissions; action does. However, the Committee on Climate Change warns that

“actions to date have fallen short of what is needed for the previous targets and well short of those required for the net-zero target”.

While we are at it, let us examine what the “net” in net zero means. It means positively heroic—I would rather say criminally reckless—assumptions about the potential for negative emission technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Such technologies are almost entirely unproven, and even unknown in some cases, so let me be clear about what we are doing when we rely on those net negative emission technologies: we are simply passing the buck to our children and leaving it to them to sort out. That is not a moral position.

Our targets also rely on our taking far more than our fair share of the global carbon pie than we are entitled to. We are on course to emit around 2% of the remaining safe carbon budget, even though our population accounts for only 4.9% of the global total. Not only that, but we have taken far more than our fair share for decades. We have emitted around 4.5% of the world’s historical fossil fuels and industry emissions. Again, that is around five times our fair share of the historic carbon budget given our percentage of world population. That legacy of colonialism has to stop. Let me be clear that intergenerational and international justice are at the heart of the climate issue, and the UK is failing on both counts.

We must also be clear that the primacy of GDP growth as the overarching priority for our economy is the elephant in the room. Our house is on fire and that elephant is blocking the door to the emergency exit and devouring our efforts to decarbonise. Take the IPCC report that tells us that we have to reach net zero by 2050 globally: during that period—the next 30 years—the global economy is set to triple in size. That means three times more production and consumption each year. It will be hard enough to decarbonise the existing economy in such a short timescale, so the idea that we will be able to do it three times over is fantasy. If we carry on with growth as usual, halving emissions by 2030, as the IPCC has made clear we need to do, would require decarbonisation of the economy at its current size at 11% a year. That is five times faster than historical rates of decarbonisation and about three times faster than even the most optimistic scientists project is possible.

Let me explode the myths surrounding the possibilities of endlessly extending the concept of green growth, which relies upon the assumption that we can achieve ​the full and adequate decoupling of economic growth from environmental harm. Although decoupling is undoubtedly useful and necessary and has occurred at certain times and in certain places, green growth cannot reduce resource use on anywhere near the scale required to deal with global environmental breakdown and to keep global warming below the target of 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels.

The IPCC has set out one lifeline scenario that does not rely on speculative and harmful negative emission technologies, and it is our emergency exit from climate breakdown. So what does it look like? Fundamentally, it is about scaling down material consumption in the richer countries by 20% globally, and with the richest among those richer countries leading the way. This cannot be about preventing poorer countries from developing; it has to be about the richer countries, and the richer people in them, doing their fair share. Transitioning away from the growth dogma is not about hurting people’s welfare—quite the opposite. It is about placing wellbeing centre stage, reducing inequalities, cutting waste and inefficiency, and prioritising quality of life over quantity of things. Instead of measuring progress in terms of GDP growth alone, we need to shift to indicators that tell us an awful lot more about whether people have high levels of wellbeing, whether there is clean air and clean water, whether we have a safe atmosphere, and whether we are reducing the gaping inequalities that diminish us all.

That is where the proposals for a green new deal come in. My colleague the hon. Member for Norwich North and I—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis)—I will flagellate myself when I get back to my office—and I have worked on a cross-party basis on a private Member’s Bill, which we intend to reintroduce in this parliamentary Session, that will set out what the green new deal needs to do. In the process of transforming the infrastructure of our society at the speed and scale that the science demands, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix an economic model that is failing the vast majority of people in this country. At the heart of the green new deal is the recognition that the current climate, nature, and inequality crises are all driven by how our economy and financial system is managed and that that has benefited a small number of people and a few giant corporations, with the price being paid by the rest of us and by the Earth that we share.

That situation will not be fixed by an acceleration of business as usual, because business as usual is what got us into this situation. Unless the Government’s so-called decade of renewal is targeted on the transformation needed to move us to a world beyond carbon, all that investment will be washed away long before the decade is out. What is required is a redistribution not only of resources but, crucially, of real power, starting with those communities that have been most excluded from prosperity.

The transition we need is not just to net zero but to a new kind of economy. The green new deal is a transformational programme to transform everything from the way we produce and consume energy to the way we heat and cool our homes, the way we travel, the way we connect our communities, the way we grow ​our food and the way we work. It will create jobs and generate income, including tax revenues for the Government. It will be a real revolution that enables us to transform our society so that it is fairer, more democratic and works better for all of us, here and around the world, while safeguarding and restoring the ecological systems on which we all depend.

With the window for making a difference rapidly closing, what we do in the next 18 months will be literally life changing. Quite honestly, standing here and thinking about what that really means for the next parliamentary Session, we cannot afford any more pretence about the scale of the challenge we face or the idea that just tinkering with business as usual will get us to where we need to be, because it simply will not.

The world’s addiction to fossil fuels started here in the UK as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. We have caused the fifth highest emissions of any country in the world. We have built our economy, our prosperity and our society on the over-consumption of finite resources, which has trashed the planet and taken away the life chances of people in other parts of this world.

Our share of causing this emergency is vast, and we must now do our fair share in addressing it.