Starmer’s inbox: renewing Labour’s green credentials

2 Jul 2024

With COP29 in Baku round the corner, the Party will need to walk the talk on climate change’s world stage, argue Jon McLeod and Toby Chapman.

Among all of the challenges Labour will face if elected, none is quite so existential in nature as the climate emergency. Add to that the growing danger posed to the UK’s domestic energy security, its environment and ecology, it is little surprise that the present danger has been dubbed by the UN “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.” 

All the major parties have committed to reaching net zero targets, and Labour’s are in many ways more ambitious. The Party’s manifesto reiterates its intention to achieve a fully decarbonised electricity supply by 2030, pledging to work with the private sector to “double onshore wind, triple solar power, and quadruple offshore wind” in that timeframe.  

Only two days before the election, Ed Miliband, who hopes to become the UK’s energy security and net zero secretary on Friday 5 July, doubled down on these stretching targets. He called Labour’s proposals the “most ambitious plan for climate and energy in our national history”, making a further commitment to no new oil and gas licences, a warm homes plan, and a national wealth fund to rebuild industrial heartlands.  

Miliband’s team has looked to align closely with their counterparts in the shadow treasury and shadow business teams. Labour’s Industrial Strategy, published in 2023, focused on using a push for clean power to create secure, well-paying jobs, and to invest in the long-term skills required to fill them. Labour’s plan to establish GB Energy, a publicly-owned clean energy company, is also in lock-step with Rachel Reeves’ ambitions for a growing economy, and will seek to crowd in the private capital investment that will be essential to achieving this without breaching her own strict fiscal rules. 

However, such fiscal pressures will also prove a consistent sticking point through all of Labour’s policy plans. Many proponents of the transition to net zero, in industry, academia, and NGOs, will not have forgotten Labour’s significant U-turn on its pledge of £28 billion of green investment. While the Shadow Chancellor has worked hard to frame this as a pragmatic re-evaluation to demonstrate Labour’s prudent management of the public purse, reversing such commitments comes with a heightened level of political risk. 

Labour may also find itself with a ‘rural inheritance’ of countryside constituencies in the new Parliament: building new renewable infrastructure – wind, solar and associated networks – will be difficult under the English planning regime and will meet staunch community opposition. This will be fuelled by a more climate-sceptic Conservative right and Reform UK rump, alongside local Lib Dem activists, who are not averse to contradicting their national party’s stance by using planning to frustrate green infrastructure. 

Alongside planning consent, securing clean, renewable energy sources will also require significant investment. In the United States, the Biden administration introduced the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, which has driven investment in clean energy via tax incentives. The European Union introduced the European Green Deal, and in China, clean energy sectors were the largest overall driver of China’s economic growth in 2023, accounting for 40% of the expansion of GDP that year. 

“If Ed Miliband’s team takes over leadership of DESNZ, they will not be gifted with the political consensus around tackling climate change which characterised British politics only ten years ago.”

In contrast, the UK, at one point considered to be a leader in the drive for decarbonisation, has been accused of recent U-turns on key net zero policies. Under Rishi Sunak’s leadership, the Government has granted over a hundred new oil and gas licences in the North Sea, and the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s independent climate watchdog, has previously accused the Conservative Government of sending “mixed messages” to other countries at COP 28.  

While Labour maintains its commitment to banning new oil and gas licences, and to redoubling the fiscal pressure on fossil fuel extraction companies still making record profits, the Party stands to face pointed challenges from within its familiar supporter base. Unions like GMB and Unite have long cautioned that the energy transition must be a just one, and should not come at the expense of North Sea workers and the communities who rely upon them. 

These kinds of tensions create a new level of political risk. Indeed, if Ed Miliband’s team takes over leadership of the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), they will not be gifted with the political consensus around tackling climate change which characterised British politics only ten years ago. He is, himself, a somewhat remote figure in the Shadow Cabinet, despite great passion for the subject and spirited Commons performances. Building a case for investment will be as much an internal Labour Party struggle as an external one.  

But pressure to act will come in the form of this November’s COP29 meeting in Baku, the prelude to which is already seeing multi-lateral debates over mitigation steps, funding for developing countries, and the nature of an internal dispute resolution framework to support the pathway to change. While the Paris agreement is intended to provide the binding framework on countries, obliging them to make the changes needed to slow rising temperatures, some countries and civil society organisations are turning to international public law to force action.  

A report launched by the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore’s Mission Zero Coalition recently marked the fifth anniversary of the UK becoming the first major economy to bind net zero targets in legislation, and it provides a number of recommendations that a Labour government could look to embrace, alongside clear timeframes scaling from its first hundred days to a full five-year term. The fact that Skidmore, himself a former Tory minister, has endorsed the Labour Party on account of his perception of its strong position on net zero, will add force to its findings. It is clear that Labour’s DESNZ team will have support in many corners, but making the changes required to stick to commitments made will still face opposition locally, nationally and internationally.  


Additional reporting by Oliver Simpson