Political highlight of the week? Actually, it was Labour's carbon game-changer

Ellie-Mae O’Hagan

This article originally appeared in The Guardian


Labour’s embrace of the Green New Deal is truly momentous, even if it was overshadowed by the supreme court ruling.

The most significant political moment of the last decade happened on Tuesday afternoon, not in the supreme court, but on a packed floor of the Brighton Centre during Labour party conference. Delegates overwhelmingly voted in favour of two motions backing a Green New Deal, a programme that will decarbonise the UK through a “radical policy package to increase social and economic justice”. One of the motions included a target for the UK to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, and one did not – instead, calling for the UK to act as a world leader on climate change, and to establish a National Climate Service.

The 2030 net-zero emissions target now has a very real chance of being included in the Labour party manifesto. Jim Pickard, chief political correspondent for the Financial Times, said the target was “one of the most radical policies by a mainstream political party in my lifetime”.

The motions had a tricky journey to the conference floor. On one hand, the GMB union, which represents thousands of workers in the fossil-fuel industry, felt it could not support a 2030 target without a credible transition plan for its members. On the other, Labour for a Green New Deal, a grassroots organisation run on a voluntary basis by young Labour members, felt that the target was non-negotiable, because of the urgency of the situation.

And so two separate motions were debated, both were won, and in the end, neither contradicted the other. Instead, the GMB motion could be seen as a challenge to the Labour party and its grassroots activists to come up with a concrete plan to meet the 2030 target. The fact that both motions passed gives the party wriggle room to respond.

The response to the 2030 target has ranged from jubilant to muted to panicked. Unsurprisingly, the latter type of reaction came from the CBI, which argued that there is “no credible pathway” to a 2030 target. This is the kind of thinking we can expect to see from an organisation that wants climate catastrophe to be averted without major changes to business as usual. But the whole point of a Green New Deal is to respond to the fact that business as usual risks leading human civilisation to collapse.

The reality is the science demands a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2030. If that isn’t possible within the current system, then it’s the system that needs to go, not the target. Perhaps the CBI should ask itself what the future for businesses looks like in a world where extreme weather collapses buildings, where British people are transformed into climate refugees as sea levels rise, and where politics is even more fractious and unstable as our representatives struggle to respond to the consequences. If the CBI has factored all of these features of global heating into its assessments, and has concluded that it doesn’t care, I leave it to the reader to judge the legitimacy of its intervention in the debate.

The motions put paid to the idea that unions and climate activists need to be in opposition over the climate crisis. To its enormous credit, Labour for a Green New Deal secured the support of nearly all major unions. In fact, Steve Turner, the assistant general secretary of Unite the Union, took to the conference floor to enthusiastically back both motions, and call for climate reparations for the global south. His position, warmly received by assembled delegates, was more upbeat and radical than that of some environmental NGOs.

GMB delegate Joseph Ghayouba spoke passionately about the miners’ strike, a scarring collective memory for the union movement, and a reminder of what happens when governments bring industries to a close without a plan for those working within them. This should be taken as an incentive for activists and unions to work together to flesh out the specifics of policy to ensure that workers, and the unions that represent them, are protected. But the thing that unites organised labour and young activists is a fundamental understanding that the system is broken. A Green New Deal is the opportunity for them to create something new.

On an unseasonably warm Friday last week, I watched thousands of schoolchildren descend on Westminster to demand action on the climate emergency. Distressed by news stories that seemed to suggest a ruined world is inevitable, these young people marched on the streets chanting: “Another world is possible!” And it was through the arcane bureaucratic processes of the Labour party that the building blocks for this new world have been voted through.

By the end of this century, society as we understand it will be unrecognisable. Either we will live in a decaying, overheated, brown wasteland like the one the current government is taking us into, or in a world with shorter working hours, cheap public transport, verdant forests and good jobs. These motions were the first step towards the latter. Perhaps one day our grandchildren will ask us where we were when it happened.