This week the EU ratified the Paris climate deal, following hot on the footsteps of the United States and China, who announced their ratification at the G20 meeting last month. These two countries together produce 40 per cent of the world’s emissions, and have fired the starting gun on the next great industrial revolution: the decarbonisation of advanced economies. The treaty enters into law on November 4.
There has been much talk from the Conservatives in Birmingham of a new industrial strategy for the UK. The prime minister, in her speech, sought to occupy the centre ground of British politics. We certainly need a plan and an industrial strategy to tackle one of the huge challenges of our age: climate change, which threatens our country with increased flooding, and for people in poorer countries, threatens the basic elements of life: access to food, water and shelter.
The result of the referendum poses big questions for how we approach this challenge. I don’t like the word Brexit. It is a slogan, not an agreed position. Brexit is a point of departure yet my constituents voted for it as a destination. Leaving the EU will be a long, painful, turbulent, costly and bitter divorce. The referendum has been a huge political misselling scandal. There is no £350 million for the NHS, no remaining in the single market without accepting freedom of movement, no taking control. Instead, we are realising, we have a weakening of our country’s ability to work with our allies in tackling the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, and the struggle against global jihadism. No brave new world of free trade but chronic, debilitating economic and social uncertainty that will cost jobs, regional investment and tax revenue.
The government’s promise to enshrine EU law into UK has had a lukewarm reception from Leavers. Yet it also means that laws protecting environmental, consumer, and workers’ rights could be quietly unpicked through secondary legislation – or statutory instruments – in parliament.
The environmental audit committee, which I chair, is conducting an enquiry into the future of the natural environment after we leave the EU. Ministers told us that EU farm payments are guaranteed till 2020 but funding for nature schemes and rural development projects are not guaranteed after this November’s autumn statement. That is of deep concern to my committee. Habitats – and the public goods they provide such as flood protection, storing carbon, and protecting wildlife – are at risk if the government chooses a hard exit from Europe. Over the next year my committee will look at what the referendum means for air and water, as well as for waste and developing a circular, more resource-efficient economy.
Climate change will affect access to water, food, energy and healthcare for people around the world, and the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer most. It will greatly increase flood risk in the UK. Last winter in Leeds, the worst flooding in 150 years devastated businesses large and small, and a number of household names have quietly left the city. How are we to deal with the projected one, or possibly even two-metre rise in sea levels by the end of this century? How do we protect our great port cities of Hull, London and Liverpool? My committee recommended a 25-year plan for flood risk as well as a clear plan for reducing carbon emissions from transport. This need not cap our aspirations for growth. A clear plan for reducing emissions is vital for investment in green infrastructure, so it is disappointing to hear the government may delay publishing the carbon plan.
The private sector will be essential to delivering radical change and building a progressive, sustainable economy in the UK where no one is left behind. Companies know that they are responsible for the environmental and social sustainability of their activities. This autumn my committee will look at how the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), known as the Global Goals, can be measured and implemented in the UK. After the referendum vote, those goals are going to be much more significant in the UK. They will be the key international benchmark by which we will seek to end violence in all its forms, tackle inequality and hunger and protect the planet.
I was elected chairwoman of the environmental audit committee just six months ago. But they have been momentous months. The shock of the referendum result, three party leadership elections, and a new prime minister. The challenge of change is all around, the only choice we have is how we rise to meet that challenge. Do we turn away, say it’s too hard, and leave it to others? Or do we rise up to meet it?
Radical change needs to persuade people if it is to become acceptable and permanent. The government’s new industrial strategy must move in lockstep with its carbon plan. The negotiations to leave the EU must protect social, consumer and environmental rights. We have to think bigger and do better than previous generations if we are to leave the world a better place than we found it. Our children and our grandchildren are relying on us. We must not let them down.