This month’s budget was neither revolutionary nor sufficiently green to tackle the ever-present danger of climate catastrophe, despite clear demands from the British public.
Huge gaps in the Chancellor’s “vision” – such as a failure to properly address a reduction in carbon emissions from buildings, no mention of funds for nature restoration despite their own recommendations in the recent Dasgupta Review and no word on electric vehicles and charging infrastructure plans – do not reflect public opinion or citizen calls for radical responses to the climate crisis.
The first UK-wide Citizens Assembly on Climate Change last year showed that people want urgent action and a joined-up approach. The assembly’s recommendations called for leadership from government that is clear, proactive, accountable and consistent, including cross-party consensus and advocation of local solutions and local engagement – and not in the sense of pressing pause on a local authority decision to go ahead with a coal mine as in the embarrassing and yet unresolved situation in Cumbria.
Now in Scotland with our first Climate Assembly in its latter stages, citizens will be discussing their recommendations to take to the Scottish Parliament in their exploration of this key question: “How should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in an effective and fair way?”
This Scottish assembly recognises that Scotland needs “a roadmap to address our unique challenges and opportunities presented by climate change”. It will be interesting to read how much their recommendations echo the UK-wide assembly on climate, what bespoke ideas they come up with for a radical new approach in Scotland and how these new ideas generated will be incorporated into our overall Climate Plan.
With voters only getting the chance to have their say when an election comes along, citizens assemblies are as vital a tool to hold governments to account as they are on consensus creation on big, important subjects. Rishi Sunak’s budget shows how easy it is for governments to drift from not just voters’ concerns but their own rhetoric and promises.
However, the UK government should listen up. A poll conducted by YouGov for the Centre For Towns think tank revealed that voters in the so called Red-Wall-turned-blue seats in the north of England are also supportive of green policies, with 94 per cent of respondents saying that climate issues are very important to them. Over 75 per cent backed creation of green jobs and energy efficient infrastructure, with high support for renewables over fossil fuels.
This blows out of the water the cliché that towns, communities and small villages are more conservative with a small ‘c’ on matters to do with the environment as compared to more urban areas.
Given how much the Tories ‘focus group’ their voters, especially in the battle to keep the Red Wall blue, you’d think they’d have picked up on these messages. And yet Sunak’s monetary response is more of a damp squib than a revolution in green vision, with £12 billion set aside for the new UK Infrastructure Bank a mere drop in the ocean for what it will take to drive innovation on the path to net-zero carbon emissions.
Just imagine what the government could do with a proper plan for greening buildings in terms of the creation of skilled work while reducing household bills and emissions at the same time, not to mention some large-scale investment in mission-orientated projects. Businesses are champing at the bit to get an opportunity for new work. This is what it will take to “level up” and “build back better”; this is what it will take to hit net zero and show some global leadership at this crucial juncture.
Let’s not forget young voices in this call for action. It’s this demographic who are facing a bleak future if governments at home and abroad fail to make good on their green commitments or continue to put the necessary sweeping changes to how we live and work on the long arm.
Scottish Tory MP Andrew Bowie admitted on BBC Scotland’s Debate Night, in a rare moment of candour, that young people wouldn’t see much benefit to Brexit. Add the Covid pandemic to the mix and the climate emergency on top and it’s no wonder that youth environmental activists are taking matters into their own hands to set a far more ambitious agenda.
Last year, at the virtually held Mock Cop climate event – an online gathering of young delegates held in place of the postponed UN summit in recognition of the urgency of the climate crisis – the now UK government Cop president, Alok Sharma, recognised “the appetite that exists across the world for governments and organisations to take ambitious climate action”. But the question for young people remains so far unanswered – what are you actually going to do about it?”
Just last week, the Public Accounts Committee declared that the UK government had no coordinated plan or clear milestones set to make good on its own legal target to achieve net zero by 2050.
With just over six months to go to Cop-26 in Glasgow, possibly the most important climate summit of this century, Sunak’s budget plan indicates that the UK government has little understanding of what it takes to kickstart a green revolution.
It also shows that they are out of step with UK citizens, young and old, whose calls for leadership and vision on this vital issue are falling on deaf ears.
How we revolutionise our societal and economic systems will have a huge impact on our survival as a planet. Time is running out; transformative change needs to happen now. In a story as old as the hills, it seems citizens have grasped this urgency ahead of government.
Douglas Chapman is SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife