All of the Labour leadership candidates have promised bolder action on climate change and support for the green economy, but which offers the most compelling vision?
Environmental policies have a strange habit of providing an insight into the true nature of a political party. Perhaps it is the requirement to think long term and demonstrate some understanding of the limits of conventional economic thinking. Or perhaps it is simply the way they reveal how politicians behave when faced with issues voters inherently care about but tend not to make a massive fuss over at the ballot box. Either way, you can tell a lot about the health and character of a political movement by looking at how it deals with environmental challenges.
This has been particularly true in recent months, when the detail-light energy and climate change part of the Conservative manifesto boiled down to a patrician plea to "trust us, we know best", which was immediately followed by the unleashing of a surprise series of controversial green policy moves and, worst still, a blatant breach of the promise to pursue rail electrification across the North of England. Ministers maintain they are fully committed to building a modern sustainable economy and they may yet deliver on their promise. But the brutal manner in which they cleared the decks for their promised cost-effective decarbonisation strategy tells you as much about the Conservative approach to government as George Osborne's willingness to announce the detail of deep welfare cuts just weeks after refusing to tell the electorate that very same detail. Politically savvy, arguably well-intentioned and pragmatic, but laced with a certain arrogance that is all too easily interpreted as a disregard for democratic niceties and those who suffer in the accompanying fall out.
The same is true of the Labour leadership candidates whose belated pronouncements on the environment have offered an equally invaluable insight into their strengths and continuing weaknesses.
First, the good news: after a slow start during which they largely ignored the biggest long term challenge facing the UK, each of the candidates have sketched out their position on the environment, climate change, and the green economy, confirming they are committed to decarbonisation and low carbon investment. If the Conservatives deliver on their promise to produce a credible decarbonisation plan the broad political consensus on climate action will remain; if they don't the opposition will at least attempt to hold them to account whoever emerges as leader.
However, encouraging green comments from each of the candidates are tempered by the flaws that have all too visibly hampered their campaigns and threaten to leave the political stage free for a Conservative government with a wafer thin majority to do pretty much exactly what it likes.
Liz Kendall has offered clear evidence she understands decarbonisation is about economic revitalisation, technology, and competitiveness, as much as it is about environmental risk. She identified climate change as one of the biggest threats facing the UK and has been clear about how it would be a top priority for them if she made it to Number 10. However, while facing (largely unjustified) criticism from Labour members for not being radical enough, she somehow failed to demonstrate how a bold national decarbonisation strategy could deliver an electable form of radicalism. This same failure has been evident thoughout her campaign, which has been faltered as a result.
Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have made the same mistake. Burnham promised a moratorium on fracking and vowed to deliver "the most ambitious renewables strategy in the world". Cooper wants a massive increase in cleantech R&D, a new wave of localised decarbonisation, and has launched one of the only effective attacks on the government during the entire leadership campaign. And yet both are struggling to convince Labour members their wider vision is radical or inspirational enough.
Much of the criticism aimed at the centre left candidates by the emboldened Corbynistas has been intemperate and unfair, but the inability of the Labour establishment to counter the charge they are offering a Tory-lite prospectus is a crushing failure of communication and rhetoric if nothing else. The differences between Kendall, Cooper, and Burnham, and Osborne, Boris and May on the environment and much else besides are profound and important. But if Labour's centrists don't get much better at elucidating these differences the UK will be condemned to a damaging period of political polarisation that could last decades (incidentally, the same warning applies to what remains of the Conservative left).
And then there is Jeremy Corbyn.
The radical's radical has included action on climate change in a 10 point plan designed to warm the cockles of left wingers everywhere. He wants to see every new building 'covered' in solar panels, he wants a ban on fracking, and he wants much greater focus on energy efficiency. He has voiced support for the concept of green quantitative easing and his anti-austerity schtick holds out the promise of borrowing to fund urgently needed low carbon infrastructure.
Corbyn's appeal (beyond the warm duvet of nostalgia offered to some on the left) centres on his ability to at least try and make the economically conventional case against the most self-defeating excesses of the government's austerity programme. The failure of Labour to point out that in the same way you take out a mortgage so you can end up with an asset to pass on to your grandchildren, it makes sense to take out a loan, at a much lower rate of interest than a mortgage, to fund the low carbon infrastructure our grandchildren will desperately need remains one of the mysteries of the age. It is a strategic mistake Corbyn is exploiting to the full - fair play to him.
Consequently, there is much in the Corbyn prospectus for environmentalists to approve of. And yet... Corbyn's brand of environmentalism feels weaker than the sum of its parts. It is compromised by a host of issues his supporters appear all too willing to gloss over.
Green QE made a lot of sense five years ago, but now, with the economy growing again it would be much bigger gamble. Nationalising the energy companies may make for a useful socialist rallying cry, but it would cost billions, obliterate investor confidence, and create years of uncertainty at a time when we need energy companies to be focused 100 per cent on decarbonisation - far better to promise much stronger regulation and a genuine challenge to the Big Six in the form of community energy. Corbyn's vacillating on the EU and anti-business rhetoric threatens to make it harder still to mobilise much needed clean tech investment.
And what of Corbyn's bizarre comments on coal? Re-opening pits in the hope carbon capture and storage (CCS) proves a functioning reality is an even more irresponsible idea than Cameron's reckless strategy of orchestrating a fracking boom before a single working CCS plant is operational in the UK.
On the environment, Corbyn is offering a Green Party tribute act with a strange soft spot for coal. As a result he has imported both the strengths and the weaknesses evident in the Greens' approach, the most glaring of which remains the small matter of electability.
It would be great to have a government that was really committed to covering buildings with solar panels and acting 'for the long-term interest of the planet'. But for Corbyn to deliver one he has to either win an election or provide an opposition so effective it genuinely forces the government to honour its obligations to the environment. The chances of Corbyn delivering either of those things appear negligible, as some of his own supporters have privately attested.
It looks as if Corbyn is on track to claim the leadership, but the two candidates with an outside chance of challenging him, Cooper and Burnham, actually offer the more viable green prospectus. They may not get the blood pumping, but they offer a vision that looks more credible and coherent (worrying silence on airport expansion and North Sea oil and gas aside). If I were a Labour member faced with a field that has largely failed to inspire, I'd vote for Cooper (with Burnham a close second) on the grounds she would push the government to up its green ambition and has the political nous to at the very least challenge the government in 2020. I'd then hope she had the vision to embed her commitment to decarbonisation in every aspect of her economic strategy and make a compelling, perhaps even Corbyn-inspired, pitch to step up low carbon investment.
However, the tragedy for Labour remains the staggering inability of its establishment figures to highlight the radicalism and social justice inherent in the project to develop a modern sustainable economy. A failure that has cleared the stage for some 20th century left wing radicalism to fill the void where a positive, inspiring, radical 21st century centrist environmentalism could and should have set up camp.
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