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The Environment: Crisis, Challenges, Policy.

Peter Jones, in his November presentation to Swansea Labour Left, focused on two themes: key environmental challenges and policy responses the Left should pursue.

The environmental crisis can only be met by interventionist government measures, achievable if accompanied by steps towards greater fairness in wealth and income distribution. The developed West must consume less or consume differently and the largely global and unregulated capitalism in an unfair society cannot do it. We need to live sustainably, within the resource capacity of the planet.

The environmental challenges include:

    • Global warming/climate change.
    • Declining biodiversity.
    • Threats to ecosystem services, including:
        • Fresh water conservation.
        • Food production and security.
        • Flood management.
        • Soil conservation.
        • Sea level rise and
        • coastal erosion.

Policy challenges include:

    • Low political priority given to principal environmental challenges.
    • Short-termism in mainstream politics and profit-driven, shareholder-led corporate capitalism.
    • The economy, education, health, welfare, pensions seen as priorities unconnected with the environment.
    • A largely uninterested and politically hostile Press.
    • A largely uninformed or misinformed population, feeding back to political priorities.

The combined challenges present positive policy opportunities for the core values of greater social fairness and equity to be expected from economically and socially active governments working with communities.

Climate Change

Globally, the most recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report (2010) calculates that CO2 emissions have risen by 30% since 2000 and by 45% from the Kyoto base year of 1990. Emissions between 1970 and 1990 also rose by 45%, so that effectively there has been no reduction over the last 40 years. However, the source countries have changed – away from the older, industrialised countries of Europe and North America, towards major increases, in particular, from China, India, Brazil and other larger developing countries.

Here in Wales, the climate change strategy adopted in 2010, provides for annual greenhouse gas emission reductions of 3% from 2011, and a target of a 40% reduction by 2020 from 1990. However, Welsh emission reductions annually from 1990 to 2008 averaged only 0.7% – so the scale of the policy challenge is considerable. Moreover, policy advice to the Welsh Climate Change Commission from research undertaken by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has suggested that annual emission reductions of up to 9% are needed.

There is general agreement that global warming must not exceed an average of 2°C above the pre-industrial level, if we are to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change, although Tyndall calculate that this should be lower at 1.5°C. However, the 2007 IPCC report suggested that an increase of 3°C by 2050 was most likely, and recent modelling by the UK Meteorological Office has confirmed this likelihood. Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor at DEFRA, has suggested that an average global temperature rise of 4/5°C is to be expected in the second half of the century.

According to the Hadley Climate Change Centre, a 3°C increase would doom to destruction the Amazon and other rainforests, with accompanying devastating consequences for much of the planet’s biodiversity. At 4/5°C increase levels, the planet will face runaway warming from the melting of Arctic permafrost – releasing methane – and the evaporation of ocean bed methane hydrates.

Such a temperature increase globally would also lead to the melting of land-surface ice-sheets in both polar regions, driving sea-level rise of up to 12 metres; and the melting of glaciers in the world’s mountain regions, leading to the loss of summer freshwater riverine freshwater flows in many densely populated areas.


Globally, the variety of life in all its forms is declining at increasing rates, partly and increasingly linked to climate change but also because of the intrusion of human development, principally agriculture and urbanisation, into the natural environment, including the use of intensive chemical agricultural and horticultural methods. The UN target to halt the loss of biodiversity globally and by country by 2010 was not met. The EU has now set targets to be met by the early 2020s. Food production for expanding human populations and increasingly wealthy consumption lifestyles – including, especially livestock and dairy – is driving the loss of forested and other natural areas. Thirty per cent of land-based biodiversity is projected to be on the road to extinction by 2050. And fish stocks, of course, are being seriously depleted from the use of unsustainable fishing methods.

Other Threats

There are serious threats to global fresh water and cultivable soils. And this is without mention of depleting fossil fuels, especially recoverable oil – Peak Oil – metals and minerals. The environment is in serious crisis – which means that our species and its cultures are in crisis.

The response of the Left

If democracies are to rise to these challenges, which potentially carry a real risk to the survival of industrial civilisations, they must grasp the linkages between acting on the environment, especially climate change, and more immediate concerns for the economy and society.

At present, we have a crisis of capitalism in the developed West – and desperate measures to shore it up. Where are the corresponding measures for the environment? Left politics should seize this opportunity to move away from the neo-liberal capitalist economic model, and re-embrace its own past, whether you want to label it socialist or social-democratic – actually a little of both. And to do so, not because of some romantic attachment to a partly imaginary socialist past, but because socialism is needed to deal with the environmental crisis – as well as the financial and economic crises that we face.

One such approach has very recently been put forward by Compass, the centre-left policy think-tank. Its ‘Plan B’, in response to the Con-Dem government’s Plan A of austerity measures and public sector spending cuts, recognises the environmental challenge, especially of climate change and resource depletion linked to over-consumption, as central to the recovery strategy.

Plan B states simply that ‘the only viable economy of the future is a green economy’, and that ‘environmental issues need to be brought out of their peripheral role within government [UK]…and into the heart of decision-making in the Treasury and 10 Downing Street…’.

The Plan B approach, first and foremost, halts the cuts programme. Instead, it sets in place measures to grow the economy, on new footings. More progressive taxation and a switch from treating symptoms to addressing the causes of economic and societal decline construct what the report calls the ‘social investment state’.

Among the environmentally relevant measures proposed are:

    • Major expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, including home insulation.
    • Investment in public transport.
    • Investment in training for green jobs.
    • Controls on irresponsible advertising.
    • Use of the tax system to penalise inefficiency in the use of resources and damage to the environment.
    • The political system to refocus on the long-term, noting abolition by the Con-Dem government of the Sustainable Development Commission.
    • Companies to be required to report on the environmental and social impacts of what they do.
    • A programme of government investment in ecosystems, with both incentives and direct payments.

My criticism of Plan B is that it needs to go further. Bring core ‘service industries’ back into public ownership: energy generation and distribution, both electricity and gas, the water utilities, rail and bus transport. Public ownership of these industries is necessary to ensure that we can have a government-directed planned programme of measures to move towards a low-carbon economy. In addition, the British Investment Bank proposed by Compass could invest heavily in small-scale wind and solar micro-generation companies and the like, to create the capacity for the massive energy conversion programme that is needed if we are to move decisively and quickly away from over-dependence on fossil fuels. And, of course, a hydrogen economy for transport, but set in the context of more walking and cycling for shorter distances, and a drive to link public health to reducing unhealthy and wasteful dependence on the car.


Much of ‘green politics’ is portrayed as being romantic and impracticable, but I and Compass contend that such measures are the very least required if we are to have a chance of containing the worst excesses of climate change and environmental degradation.

The Left needs to break with ‘business as usual’ and the worst features of capitalism. Ed Miliband showed an inkling of understanding this in his Leader’s speech to the Labour Party Conference last month. Labour can deliver a programme for combating climate change and other environmental excesses within the framework of democracy. And Plaid’s Leanne Wood’s ‘Greenprint for the Valleys’ makes a serious attempt to bring a green strategy into mainstream regeneration.

Should we fail, the not-too-distant future may herald technocrats and scientists making the decisions ‘on our behalf’, as they are now doing with the European economy. The economic crisis calls forth radical actions, albeit the wrong ones; the environment merits equal vigour.

Peter Jones is Conservation Officer: Ecosystems with a leading UK wildlife conservation body and a member of the Welsh Government’s Climate Change Commission. The views expressed here are his own.

November 2011

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