October 30, 2021

COP26 debate in Parliament: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Words by Jessica Kleczka

Last Thursday, a cross-party group of MPs secured a debate in the House of Commons titled “COP26 and limiting temperatures to 1.5 degrees”. As many would agree, these debates are crucial in bringing pressing issues to the table and urging our elected leaders to act. The UN climate conference has recently been called “humanity’s last chance to solve climate change”, and doom-mongering headlines are everywhere while world leaders are scrambling to make the summit a success while the PM admitted the chances of success were “touch and go”. So, what were the outcomes and key arguments of the debate?

The Good

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas opened the debate stressing the crucial importance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, and that every fraction of degree matters in averting environmental degradation, extreme weather events, and a public health emergency. Given our COP26 presidency, she pointed out, we need to face up to our colonial past and history as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. This will mean focusing on climate justice - sorting out our climate finance and reversing cuts to foreign aid, which, she argues, was “the most damaging thing we could have done before COP26”.

Lucas faced pushback from Conservatives for criticising the government’s ambitious approach, but rightly pointed out that “the climate does not care for targets”. As several Conservative MPs correctly pointed out, our climate goals are among the most ambitious in the world - but an analysis by the environmental think tank Green Alliance has shown that our actual policies will only deliver emissions reductions at less than a quarter of the rate we need. Lucas stressed that we need systems change, not just behaviour change, and that we need a rapid shift away from fossil fuels - otherwise we risk using up our national carbon budget in the next five years.

Her urgent message was echoed by many others in the opposition. Clive Lewis MP pointed out that the negative emission technologies the government’s Net Zero Strategy relies on heavily do not exist at scale yet, and that future generations will never forgive us if we fail to take adequate action now. He says: “Imagine we’re all sat in a car heading to a cliff edge. What we need is a hard turn, but what we have is Government gently taking the foot off the accelerator.” 

Some Conservative MPs shared this sentiment, with Alexander Stafford stressing the potential for green jobs and that a more sustainable future is possible without tax rises if the right approach is taken - with action needed from both Government and businesses. Conservative MP Robbie Moore declared that action must be taken on a community level, while Labour MP Jeff Smith stressed that in order to do this, local governments urgently need more funding. This was echoed by Jeremy Corbyn, who demanded more investment in the green economy.

Climate finance and climate justice were inextricably linked in this debate, with a range of voices speaking up on the issue. Ben Lake MP from Plaid Cymru warned of the “short-sighted attitude” that we cannot afford a green transition, and that “the cost of inaction is unaffordable”. Deidre Brock MSP pointed to the UK’s vulnerability to a range of climate risks, as analysed by the Climate Change Committee, and that ambitious climate action will be crucial in order to build national resilience. Brendan O’Hara demanded the UK Government set up a Climate Justice Fund similar to Scotland’s, in order to support those most affected by the climate crisis.

The Bad

The most obvious thing falling into the “bad” category was the poor attendance of the debate - while the 20-odd MPs from the opposition were a disappointment, Conservative MPs topped this with a meagre six attendants, despite the party’s sizeable Conservative Environment Network who could have contributed much-needed progressive perspectives. As a result, the debate was heavily skewed towards attendees from the Labour Party. Those Conservative MPs present criticised the “negativity” towards the government's achievements (read: targets), or as Bob Seely MP put it, their “apocalyptic doom-mongering and hair-shirted flagellation”. Rebecca Pow MP expressed dismay at Caroline Lucas’ “total negativity”, and stressed that the UK had doubled international climate finance. What she failed to mention was that the government had subsequently reduced payments to poorer countries by £100 million.

Conservative MP Scott Benton had his moment when he told Extinction Rebellion to “sail to other G20 countries if they want to glue themselves to roads and trains.” It remains a mystery who he was addressing exactly, as no activists were present. This theatrical argument served to accentuate his point that the UK is doing just fine as our emissions output is the lowest in the G20 - which is a false statistic, possibly connected to the fact that the UK has one of the lowest populations in the G20. Our per capita emissions, however, are higher than average in comparison with other G20 countries. Other statistics for the Climate Transparency Report show that the UK is the second highest contributor to fossil fuel subsidies in the G20, second only to the United States.

Conservative MPs present stressed that the cost of decarbonisation will hit poor people the most - a strategy known as wokewashing (see our recent article), in which social justice issues are used to argue against ambitious climate policy. It is a popular tactic in the fossil fuel industry, and has now found its way into Government - which, one should mention, has accepted generous donations from big oil and gas in recent years. The conversation around fossil fuels was largely one-sided - while Caroline Lucas MP and a range of Labour Party MPs stressed the need for a fossil fuel phase-out and just transition, Conservative MPs present seemed unwilling to respond to these calls.

There was a disproportionate amount of arguments around shifting responsibility onto local authorities, with Conservative MP Julie Marson stressing that “a lot of answers can be found in local action”. This type of argument has been identified as a common discourse of delay by climate communication experts, which ignores the fact that local authorities are severely limited in what they can do due to a lack of funding. There was also a helping of the good old “technology will save us”: Marson stated that technological change will be more important than behaviour change, which the latter being largely avoided by the Conservative Party, who prioritise freedom of choice. A recent Government report by the Behavioural Insights Group, also called “Nudge Unit”, had been hastily deleted just days before after concluding that transformative systemic change is needed in order to facilitate sustainable behaviours.

The Ugly

No climate change debate would be complete without dropping the population bomb, and Sir Bernard Jenkin from the Conservative party - a former climate change sceptic - did not disappoint. He claims that “in order to stop species extinctions, the rape of our seas, and the plundering of natural resources, we need to change population projections”. The population argument, as any scientist will be aware of, is a myth which has been widely condemned as eco-fascism. Jenkin’s use of language, in particular the words “rape” and “plunder”, is typical in these discourses. The question remains whether his attack includes industrial countries like the UK, or was directed at developing nations, as is typical for this rhetoric.

Another highlight came from Conservative MP Bob Seeley, who rejected the notion that the UK was exporting its emissions to China, and claimed that “offshoring jobs creates wealth in other countries” - a mindset which, given the United Kingdom's colonial history, had a cringeworthy white saviourist ring to it. Contrastingly, he believes that the UK should not shift away from gas because “importing is not a solution”. So much for his concern regarding other countries’ economies. Summarising Government’s half-hearted approach to solving the climate crisis, he states: “we don’t have a magic wand”.

In conclusion...

It is important to emphasise that a poorly attended, mediocre debate like this one is in no way an indicator of whether COP26 will be successful. Looking back to COP21, it is worth remembering that the Paris Agreement was a last-minute ditch which did not reflect the days of failed negotiations leading up to it.

A worrying observation is the presence of so-called discourses of delay in Parliament - redirecting responsibility, using the social justice argument against ambitious climate policy, and claiming that enough is being done already (see our previous article on this). These discourses have the potential to seriously inhibit the urgent action we will need to see at COP26, and stress the importance of cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry. The new coal mine in Cumbria and Cambo oil field in Scotland were largely avoided by Conservative Party MPs, a glaring omission given the International Energy Agency’s statement that there can be no new fossil fuel developments if we want to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.

This week, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that Scotland’s energy strategy will shift away from fossil fuels, a major development which was not mirrored by the UK’s recent Net Zero strategy. It is crystal clear that there is considerable divergence in the UK’s approach to fossil fuels - and therefore tackling the climate crisis, both between and within parties, with the prime minister and chancellor having encountered difficulties negotiating funding for the green transition. What is now urgently needed is not only the necessary political will to avert devastating climate change impacts, but a coordinated approach across the UK’s four nations in order to achieve a safe and just transition for everyone. 

Take action...

Watch the full debate here.

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