As the nation froze this week, we at Field warmed up for COP by assembling not one, not two, but three Shadow Ministers for a panel discussion on Labour’s plan to decarbonise our transport system. Transport is, lest we forget, our biggest emitting sector and one of the few sectors in which emissions continue to grow.
Transport and sustainability are topics close to our hearts at Field so it was great to hear from Tan Dhesi (Shadow Rail Minister), Matt Pennycook (Shadow Minister for Climate Change) and Kerry McCarthy (Shadow Green Transport Minister), who were, unsurprisingly, all in agreement that the Government has a long way to go on this.
Overall, it was a story of ‘yes the Government have done X, but what about Y’ – and that is not meant snidely. Acknowledging successes but pressing for improvement is exactly what a good opposition should do! Kerry McCarthy was enthusiastic about the potential for sustainable aviation fuels, and happy with the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars, but concerned about the lack of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Pennycook was complimentary about the signals Government are sending with their commitments, but thinks more needs to be done to bring the public with them. Because, as he pointed out, people support strong action only if they are fully educated on the trade-offs.
Tan Dhesi talked, as is customary for the Shadow Rail Minister, about trains. And he was possibly the most damning of the three panellists in his assessment of the Government. “The UK should be a world leader and yet we are lagging behind,” Dhesi said, with the disappointed tone of a school teacher at a parents’ evening. He backed this up with comparisons of the UK’s efforts on rail electrification to that of other countries, and he is clearly right that we have a long way to go in that regard. He also championed HS2 for its potential to bring about modal shift. In short, in his view, we need less flying, less driving, and more train-ing, and projects which make rail more attractive are positive for this reason.
Audience views on the government’s record were also mixed. In the polls taken during the session, our audience thought the Government’s plans are at least partially sufficient for achieving net-zero, and most expect COP to be at least quite significant for future policy in their sector. This sums up the general feeling about Government action on climate change right now. Quite a lot done. But an awful lot more to do.
For a Conservative Government, and one that has previously tapped in to right wing populism, qualified praise on climate change probably exceeds expectations. There will be some hardcore right wingers who grumble and drag their feet at the perception that Boris is now a regulation loving tree hugger. But they are a minority, and the tide of public, business and political opinion is moving towards the desire for more drastic action not less. The bar will continue to get higher, and being simply Conservatives who talk tough about climate change will not be enough. The next stage is serious action. Labour – and the country – will be watching with eagle eyes.