Andy Burnham: COP are out of touch, but so are Insulate Britain

·4-min read
Andy Burnham: COP are out of touch, but so are Insulate Britain

I’m just back from two days at COP26 and officially worried about the state of the climate debate. We all need this moment to be a turning point. It still could be. But, if we are not careful, it could as easily be in the wrong as in the right direction. Just when we need to be upping the pace towards net zero, and building support, I am getting the distinct feeling that the messages of the main players — politicians, plutocrats and protesters such as Insulate Britain — are not landing with the public.

This became clear to me on Tuesday. We had a multi-billionaire preaching from the COP pulpit having burnt more carbon in a trip to space than most people consume in a lifetime; and protesters with the time to glue themselves to roads in Manchester, Birmingham and London reprimanding ordinary people under work and time pressures for using their cars. While I agree with what the protestors are calling for I can’t agree with their tactics and you couldn’t help but feel that both were burning public support for climate action rather than building it.

What was most unnerving in Glasgow was the stark difference in mood between the Blue Zone and the rest of the city. Inside the bubble, the talk was of abstract percentages and far-off dates with remarkably little reference to the struggles of ordinary families recovering from the pandemic.

Outside, in the taxis and pubs, the talk was of the number of private jets at Glasgow Airport and 40+ SUV cavalcades sweeping through the city. To the extent that people have picked up anything from COP26, it’s a sense that the drive to net zero will mean cost and inconvenience for ordinary people and off-setting for the wealthy and entitled. All of a sudden, you can feel how net zero could become the new Brexit — a debate that gets very divided on class grounds. And, right on cue, reports have started appearing this week of calls for a referendum on decarbonisation.

This has got to be a wake-up call. We cannot let this happen. We need to act now to build a broad social consensus behind the drive to net zero. How to do that? It starts with taking control of the climate narrative from those steering it in the wrong direction and turning it around. That can begin as early as next week, when the COP spotlight falls on mayors and cities. We must grab the summit by the scruff of the neck and root it in the real world. We must show how, if done in the right way, the drive to net zero is actually an opportunity to reduce the cost of living; to make people’s lives better and society fairer.

One thing all people are feeling right now is a risk to household incomes from the dependence on fossil fuels. Everyone is noticing the soaring cost of filling up the car with petrol or diesel. Everyone is worried about home energy bills. So let’s speak to those things. Let’s explain clearly how, if people are helped to switch to an electric vehicle or retrofit their homes, they will benefit from much lower running costs and be

protected from the volatility of oil and gas prices.

This is the big change we need in the climate debate: we need governments to start setting carbon-reduction targets which will affect people’s lives in a beneficial way rather than punish them.

For instance, we need an international agreement on a timeline for the retrofitting of homes, with a commitment that the costs will not all fall on the individual. Such a move would galvanise the market and bring down costs.

Here in the UK, if we had a commitment to retrofit 50 per cent of homes by 2035, it could reduce people’s bills, improve the housing stock in some of our poorest areas and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. Or, in other words, it could make levelling up a real thing.

We also need clear international targets on transport. This week, I heard from the mayor of Oslo how, in his city, over half of cars sold are electric. This is because of the help people have been given to buy one. The mayor of Montpellier told me how all public transport will be free in his city by 2024.

If we reframe the climate debate around decarbonising housing and transport, and reducing the costs of both, people might start to listen a bit more. They will no doubt then ask how will it all be paid for and that brings me to a final suggestion.

How about, from now on, no billionaire is allowed to walk through the doors of COP without first having signed a commitment to pay tax at the same rate as other smaller businesses struggling with the costs of climate change?

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