Labour’s green U-turn is just a symptom of a much deeper global problem

In what has been yet another less-than-dignified week in British politics, the announcement by Sir Keir Starmer that his Labour Party is ditching its policy of spending £28bn a year on its green investment plan landed like more of a domestic update than a fundamental political u-turn.

The spending pledge, announced by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in 2021, has been a key part of the party’s plans to reach climate targets and secure green jobs and Sir Keir looked distinctly uncomfortable as he spoke to reporters yesterday about this particular policy change.

In some respects it was hardly surprising news, as many Labour senior figures had already been distancing themselves from this ambitious promise. In fact the pledge had already been watered down last year, when in June 2023 Reeves shifted the narrative from £28bn a year to “investment over time from a 2024 election win, reaching £28bn a year after 2027.”

If one looks back over Labour comments about this policy since it was first announced, even Sir Kier has seemed uncertain at times about how the £28bn per annum figure was formulated. What’s not in doubt is that the deteriorating face of global economics has all but negated any speculative promises political parties might dare to make about injections of capital. The Ukraine and Gaza crises, our spiralling commitments to arms supply, faltering interest rates, inflation and the climate crisis itself have conflated to drain severely the reserves of most Western economies.

For Sir Kier and the Labour Party, the blame is also targeted squarely at the Tory Party and what he says is their general mismanagement of fiscal affairs since they were elected 14 years ago. In particular former Tory PM Liz Truss’s mini budget last year, which included billions of pounds of unfunded tax cuts and caused turmoil in the financial markets, is being blamed for the need to revise all sorts of economic estimates and aspirations.

It is thought that Labour was pinning its hopes on the fact that the annual £28bn injection would help revive the economy, provide many new jobs and reactivate the cycle of investment and return that governments rely on so heavily.

Much of the logic for this draws on rose-tinted studies of the “New Deal” programme enacted by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the late 1930s, in the wake of the Great Depression. An unprecedented injection of cash into the American economy at precisely the moment that most advisers said would be reckless and undeliverable saw Roosevelt drive through a relentless programme of civic and public rebuilding and investment that restored hope, self-respect and a basic income to tens of millions of Americans and in part revived a country all but dying on its feet. It also helped preserve the notion of liberal democracy at a time when this was failing in other countries.

This all has made the “new Deal” carry an almost hypnotic attraction to contemporary UK politicians, who are struggling not only to make sense of unprecedented seismic shifts in world affairs but more importantly are struggling to offer solutions to a deteriorating global landscape.

The detail of Labour’s £28bn pledge was always uncertain, but it was said that the green energy investment strategy would have included £6bn a year on home insulation grants, £500m on the greening of existing jobs, £2bn on eight battery factories, £3bn on ‘clean steel’ plants and £1bn on ‘renewable-ready’ ports.

All of this will now have to be reconsidered, but essentially Labour are talking about chopping the plan in half, from £28bn a year to under £15bn – of which only a third of which would be new money.

The announcement brought immediate and angry responses from environmental campaigners, who argue that their energy targets will be difficult to hit without the promised level of spending.

Areeba Hamid, the co-executive director of Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian that Starmer had “caved like a house of cards in the wind” while Mike Childs, the head of policy at Friends of the Earth, said Labour had “turned its back on the people who most urgently need these essential upgrades – the many millions of low-income households suffering from living in poorly insulated homes”.

Whatever the reasons for the Labour Party reconsidering its green pledges, the announcement couldn’t have come at a worse moment. This January was the hottest on record, at 1.7°C above the pre-industrial average for the month. This means there has been a 12-month period in which the average global surface temperature was more than 1.5°C above the 1850 to 1900 average, the period taken as the pre-industrial reference point.

It’s worth remining ourselves that at the Paris climate meeting in 2015, the attending countries made a pledge to stop global temperatures rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and to instigate a measurable temperature downturn by 2030.

However, extremely rapid warming in the past year or two has far surpassed our worst fears. Among other records, 2023 saw the first day that was more than 2°C warmer than the 1850 to 1900 average and new research is pointing unambiguously to a fundamental underestimate of the general temperature rise across the past three centuries.

Accurate measurement of sea temperatures – the baseline for global warming estimates – really only began in the mid 1800s when ships started inserting thermometers into collected sea water samples. This was not an exact science and global coverage was extremely limited so the data during this period is fairly scant. More importantly it was hardly ‘pre-industrial’ as humans had already begun pumping substantial levels of highly damaging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the early 1800s. So any global warming baseline should really start in the mid-1700s.

New research by The University of Western Australia (UWA) looking at particular species of sea sponges – which can live for many hundreds of years and contain a very accurate (to within 0.1°C) marker of sea temperatures over time – is starting to indicate that ocean temperatures had in fact begun to rise un-naturally as early as the mid-1870s. The implication here is that global warming is more advanced that even our worst predictions, and the 2°C barrier is likely to be exceeded by the end of this decade, more than 20 years earlier than expected.

Another alarming find by the UWA team has been that Since the late 20th century, land-air temperatures have been increasing at almost twice the rate of surface oceans and are now more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. That would more than explain the worrying decline in the Arctic permafrost and the increasing frequency of bushfires, heatwaves and severe drought.

Other scientists have pointed out that this latest temperature high will not by itself break the commitment made by the world’s governments to limit global heating to 1.5C (2.7F), arguing that the 1.5C ceiling cannot be considered breached until a string of several years exceed this limit, which they say is most likely to happen at some point in the 2030s.

This may be the case, but what’s unavoidable is the fact that global warming is accelerating, and probably has been deteriorating for much longer than we’ve been estimating. And whilst we can all argue about targets, critical temperature points and climate goals, the more urgent issue is that any path of accelerated global warming is going to result in many more extreme weather events – with all the death, destruction and displacement that this brings.

In his Address to the Cop28 summit in Dubai in December, Pope Francis wrote of an increasing lack of “shared awareness of being” in a world where “the drive to produce and possess has become an obsession, resulting in an inordinate greed that has made the environment the object of unbridled exploitation.

“The climate, run amok, is crying out to us to halt this illusion of omnipotence,” said Francis.

“Let us once more recognise our limits, with humility and courage, as the sole path to a life of authentic fulfilment.”

One of the characteristics of the COP meetings over the years has been the relentless and systematic shuffling around of culpability for our growing climate crisis – be it blaming the poor, or developing nations – onto anyone but ourselves. This has been accompanied by a drift away from multilateralism as mistrust across the international community has increased, which has left the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced nations simply staring across the table at each other as our planet deteriorates.

Across the world even the most developed countries are beginning to struggle with the intensity and frequency of unanticipated climate events, and that’s even before consideration of the human consequences of these  catastrophes such as societal rebuilding, enforced migration, feeding and health impacts.

Whilst the UK Labour Party’s admission that it’s no longer going to be able to meet its green strategy ambitions has made for a few dramatic Friday headlines, the far deeper concern is that other political parties and other governments may soon have to make similar profound cuts to their strategic goals on climate change, with all that bodes for the future of the increasingly fragile world we live in.

It’s a dreadful irony that these reductions in public spending which might otherwise help to save the planet are being driven by the increasing need to build and use weapons of war, and the obsessive drive towards consumerism other emphemeral commodities that few of us really need.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian