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Labour must act to save the environment – here’s my three-point plan

<span>Composite: Guardian Design/Rex/Shutterstock/AAP</span>
Composite: Guardian Design/Rex/Shutterstock/AAP

I’m as likely to be selected for the national gymnastics team. But bear with me awhile, to imagine that, like David Cameron, I’m about to be wafted by the UK’s fairytale political system from my garden shed to the benches of the House of Lords, to become Labour’s shadow environment secretary. Here are the three big policies I would try to insert into the party’s manifesto.

1. Strong and honest climate policies

First, Labour will adopt the climate and ecology bill drafted by the Zero Hour campaign, which was presented to parliament by the Green MP Caroline Lucas in 2020. Unlike current environmental laws, it tracks both the science and our international commitments. The UK signed the Paris agreement, which seeks to limit global heating to 1.5C. Yet none of the government’s policies are aligned with this aim. The fifth carbon budget, which set our climate goals for 2028-2032, is 36% higher than it would be if we stuck to the agreement. To make matters much worse, the budgets exclude, until 2033, the greenhouse gases produced by international aviation and shipping, and the climate breakdown we commission through the goods and services we import, which account for 43% of our total emissions. If these are counted, Zero Hour estimates, our greenhouse gases have fallen not by 48% since 1990, as official figures claim, but by 23%.

At the same time, some of our crucial ecosystems are being pushed close to their tipping points. Think of the River Wye, which, like many other rivers, is so overloaded with livestock manure that it’s now on the verge of ecological collapse. Many of our threatened ecosystems are essential stores of carbon: their degradation throws us even further out of line with our global climate pledges.

The bill would oblige the government to limit our total emissions to the UK’s proportionate share of a global carbon budget, to allow a 67% chance of limiting heating to 1.5C. It would bring our reliance on fossil fuels to an end as quickly as possible and restore and expand our ecosystems.

2. Offer real protection to vulnerable areas of land and sea

This takes us to my second policy, which also honours an international commitment, made with great fanfare by Boris Johnson in 2020: to protect 30% of our land and sea by 2030. You will be astonished to hear that Johnson had his fingers crossed when he made that promise. His government promptly announced that 26% of our land and 38% of our seas were already protected.

What the government meant was that it has drawn lines on a map around places where, in most cases, nature has no meaningful protections. Most of our national parks are ecological disaster zones, grazed to the quick by sheep and deer or burnt for grouse shooting. Most of our “marine protected areas” are repeatedly trashed by trawlers. A paper in Global Ecology and Conservation reveals that as little as 5% of the UK’s land surface meets international standards for nature protection. In England, it’s just over 3%. Only 0.53% of English seas have been protected from damaging industries such as fishing, dredging and construction.

Labour will honour Johnson’s broken promise and the UK’s commitment under the global biodiversity framework: 30% of our land and sea will be genuinely protected. To this end, we’ll develop a land and sea use strategy, identifying the places where it makes most sense to farm and fish, and the places it makes more sense to rewild, delivering a just transition towards a greener rural economy.

Related: Britain’s economy is deeply flawed. These are the three pledges Labour must make to fix it | Larry Elliott

3. Implement a genuine progress index in place of GDP

At the moment, every attempt to create a greener and fairer country is hampered by the way we measure progress. So my third big policy is to dethrone our use of GDP as a general indicator of how well we are doing, and replace it with more appropriate measures. There’s a vast range of ideas about what a genuine progress index would look like, so Labour would launch a consultation and citizens’ assemblies to decide how best to do it.

Unlike GDP, which bundles up good things and bad (if you have to refurbish your home because of flooding, this contributes to GDP), our index would incorporate measures of health, education, housing, environmental quality, employment and leisure time, ability to meet the cost of living, equality, inclusivity and democratic engagement. All these things are measured today, but they currently take second place to a perverse metric that was never designed to track our wellbeing.

I know they want it. So I’ll just keep sitting here waiting for the call. Hello? Whenever you’re ready guys. Damn signal must have gone down again.

  • George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist