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Keir Starmer has branded Boris Johnson and his government “climate delayers”, as he warned that the biggest threat to international efforts to stem global warming is no longer outright denial but failure to act with the necessary urgency.
Speaking to The Independent, the Labour leader said the prime minister was “letting the country down” with his inaction on climate change, less than 100 days before he is due to host the United Nations Cop26 global warming summit in Glasgow.
Warning that “the sense of urgency just isn’t there with this government”, Starmer pointed to internal cabinet rows over the replacement of gas boilers, as well as the sell-off of the Green Investment Bank and the scrapping of green homes grants as markers that Conservative rhetoric on sustainability was not matched by action.
And he revealed new figures suggesting that some 75,000 green jobs have been lost over five years at a time when Tory prime ministers were publicly committed to action against climate change.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed an overall loss of 33,800 direct jobs in the low carbon and renewable sectors between 2014 and 2019, along with a further 41,400 jobs in the supply chain, said Labour. These included falls in jobs in onshore wind, solar panels and energy efficient equipment.
“Those 75,000 jobs are an example of this government’s and this prime minister’s trademark rhetoric not matched by reality,” said Starmer.
But the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) challenged the claim, insisting that the apparent decline was due to a change in the way the statistics were compiled.
The department pointed to an ONS report in March this year which said the sector had seen “no significant change in size” between 2014 and 2019. The ONS said that methodological changes in 2015 made direct comparisons “difficult”.
The Labour leader, who on Tuesday told The Independent that he was recommitting Labour to the ambitious target of cutting the “substantial majority” of carbon emissions by 2030, was speaking during a two-day visit to Glasgow to mark 100 days to go until the conclusion of the UN summit, where it is hoped that almost 200 nations will unite behind a plan for action to keep warming to no more than 1.5C.
But he warned that, after slashing the UK’s aid budget and embarking on a series of rows with European allies, Mr Johnson’s reputation was “at a low ebb” internationally at the very moment when he has the task of brokering a deal to build on the Paris Agreement of 2015.
Cop26 will be “arguably the biggest global event for Britain since the Olympics in 2012, when the eyes of the whole world will be on us”, said Starmer.
“Paris told us what we have got to do – the ambition to get to 1.5 degrees. But Glasgow has got to deliver the reality of how we get there.
“That means diplomacy, it means building coalitions, it means leading by example. Acting globally on the diplomatic stage is all about reputation and trust and the reputation of this prime minister is at a low ebb.
“Just at the point where we need a prime minister that can lead for Britain, we have a prime minister that’s letting Britain down.”
Starmer added: “I’m very perturbed about the inaction of the government, because in a sense the biggest challenge here is no longer the climate deniers, it’s the climate delayers. Those that know we’ve got to do something but aren’t acting quickly enough. And the government is in that category.”
On a visit to a wind farm in Scotland alongside Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, Starmer restated Labour’s call for £30bn in planned investment to be brought forward to support up to 400,000 jobs in manufacturing and low-carbon industries.
And he aimed a broadside at the record of the Scottish National Party, after figures showed fewer direct green jobs north of the border than in 2014, despite the party promising to create 130,000 green jobs by 2020.
“Tackling the climate crisis must be at the heart of everything we do,” said Starmer. “We are at a critical moment. In less than 100 days, Cop26 will be over and our chance to keep the planet’s warming below 1.5 degrees will have either been grasped or abandoned.
“The UK must rise to this moment and lead by example. That means rapid action to create good, green jobs across the country. And it means a proper strategy to buy, make and sell more in Britain, to create good, unionised jobs in clean energy and through supply chains.
“We’ve had a decade of broken promises on green jobs and climate action under the Conservatives. And we are going backwards in Scotland, too. For all the rhetoric, both parties have overseen a significant loss of green jobs.
“Nobody here in the UK can afford for this issue to be yet another example of Boris Johnson bluster. We need real action, now. It is time for a Green New Deal.”
A BEIS spokesperson said: “As we build back better and greener from the pandemic, this government is firmly committed to seizing the economic opportunities presented by the transition to a green economy.
“The data from 2019 and 2014 cannot be compared as there was a change in how the survey was conducted. In fact, ONS has concluded that the low carbon and renewable energy economy has remained stable.
“We have welcomed the recommendations put forward by the green jobs taskforce, which are a big step forward in delivering the skilled workers and green jobs essential for the UK’s transition to net zero.
“This will now be considered by the government, starting with the development of our net zero strategy, due to be published ahead of the UN’s climate summit Cop26 in Glasgow this November.”