A UK plan to hit net zero emissions could tackle economic and social injustices, too

The Extinction Rebellion protest last month. Image: Getty.

Thanks to the youth climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, David Attenborough’s BBC One documentary and Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK, climate change is finally riding high on the political agenda. The common ask for politicians and policymakers to tell the truth about climate change, and to reconcile it with serious action seems to be ringing in the ears of our political leaders. Just this weekend, both Labour and the Scottish National Party joined 59 Councils in declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’. No doubt others will follow over the coming weeks.

Achieving a transition that is both green and just will not be easy. Governments have dealt with previous emergencies such as WWII or the Great Depression by stimulating the economy in ways that also worked to increase our environmental impact. Going forward the task will be to find the ways that we can improve people’s quality of life and bring about broadly-shared prosperity whilst also delivering significant and absolute reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) – no easy task.

Whilst the escalation in ambition and focus is very welcome, it has brought to the fore the need for credible plans that are capable of turning the protestors’ demands into practical action. This is the task of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, which launches this week. The purpose of this new Commission is to set out a plan to deliver a rapid and just transition to a green, sustainable and fair economy.

While much of the technology and knowledge required for the successful delivery of a green transition already exists, the practical delivery of it will entail a level of mobilisation and collaboration that is almost unprecedented in our history. Fundamental will be elevating the challenge of decarbonising our economy to a national mission. It will mean an investment programme and industrial strategy – a Green New Deal – that could radically reduce our emissions, deliver broadly-distributed prosperity, and deliver well-paid, high quality jobs. To work, it will need to be led by a Prime Minister and government that is determined to make it the central focus of their administration, and who have the capability and willingness to work alongside town halls, unions, civil society, business and the public at large.


First and foremost amongst these must certainly be the public: even a cursory glance over to France during the recent, and ongoing, gilets jaunes protests shows what can happen when you get on the wrong side of the people on these issues. The UK must not repeat these mistakes; our response needs to ensure a green transition that is fair and just and that has public engagement at the very heart of its decision-making process. It also needs to redress the historic injustices that have left many communities behind following unmanaged industrial transitions in the past and an unbalanced economy that’s still too skewed towards London. Workers and communities that are reliant on carbon intensive industries must be supported through a just transition to a sustainable economy that provides jobs, prosperity and hope. We must also consider the economic and social injustices associated with the issue including the disproportionate impact by, for example, gender, class and ethnicity.

Well-designed, a green transition presents the opportunity to achieve this. Given the scale of the challenge there will be a lot of work to do; this opens up the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs and to giving people a genuine stake in society.

For instance, decarbonisation will require that we mobilise a workforce that’s capable of retrofitting and upgrading hundreds-of-thousands of homes – thereby employing thousands of people and having a material impact on many more’s quality of life. Elsewhere, we will need to accelerate the transition to zero carbon transport infrastructure, by investing in electric vehicles and bringing our public transport systems up to 21st century standards. We will also need to explore less tangible ways of reducing people’s impact, for example by correctly market anomalies that make it harder for people to do the right thing.

Business as usual is running on borrowed time, and the window of opportunity for responding has narrowed. The International Panel on Climate Change has warned of serious consequences if global average temperatures rise beyond 1.5C. Given our historical emissions, the UK has a responsibility to demonstrate leadership and show how rapidly decarbonisation can be reconciled with improving people’s quality of life. This will require a revolution in political leadership, and the delivery of a coherent plan that tells the truth and puts people front and centre in how we respond.

Luke Murphy is an associate director at IPPR and head of its new Environmental Justice Commission and

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