The business community demands the British government does more to tackle climate change, including sending clear signals to international markets.
Ed Miliband must show leadership on the international stage on the issue of climate change in order to deliver sustainable business and appear electable, the shadow minister for energy and climate change Jonathan Reynolds MP was warned today.
Carmel McQuaid, Head of Sustainable Business at retailer Marks and Spencer, explained that British companies depend on foreign rival corporations meeting the same climate change standards and so governments must play a central role in providing clear signals to the market.
The financial crisis of 2008 has made it even more important that firms can make a business case to their boards and shareholders, she argued. Companies need to make long-term investments without governments making sudden changes to tariffs and regulations.
McQuaid was speaking alongside the shadow minister at a fringe event held this morning in the Global Development Hub in Central Manchester where hundreds of Labour delegates are meeting for the autumn conference.
Sunny Hundal, the writer and activist, explained that Miliband faced a “Putin problem”, because he was yet to prove to the British public that he would be able to stand up to international leaders on issues like trade and climate change.
And Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam Great Britain, said the Labour party must present a clear and compelling case to take action to prevent the people of Bangladesh facing an ever worsening fate of floods and starvation.
But Reynolds kept to the party line, arguing that Labour had to deliver on domestic policy in order to gain respect among international leaders and could only “bring people with us” by delivering immediate benefits through policies like energy efficiency.
Caroline Flint, the shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change, will tomorrow announce that the Labour party, if elected, will insulate five million homes across Britain to reduce the use of fossil fuels while also reducing the amount spent by families on heating bills.
McQuaid explained that M&S was still working towards its 2007 “Plan A” commitment to become carbon neutral, but the economic crisis has meant board members and shareholders must understand how climate change could impact business – disrupting the firm’s supply chains – before making the necessary investment.
Moreover, there are serious concerns that British companies taking a lead on climate change would end up at a commercial disadvantage unless international leaders set the agenda and governments act to create a level playing field.
“The challenge I have from the business community – and our chief executive has said it – is that there is no point being a leader if no one follows,” she said. “That’s why we believe the international negotiations are absolutely essential.”
If only a few companies become carbon neutral, they would have to meet the costs while their rivals would ultimately benefit. “That’s called freeloading in market economics,” she argued.
“We don’t become too inward facing because we have an election. It’s vitally important more people join in from other countries.”
She added: “What resonates with M&S customers is they expect us to do what is right with regards to people in our supply chain. They do not want to wear a dress or eat a cake if they know people have suffered in our supply chain.”
But, she warned, any signs of uncertainty among political leaders could prove catastrophic. “We are at risk of losing all the hard work for the last 20 years…
“The constant changes to tariffs and budgets have been beyond belief unhelpful. We’re about to sign a contract and then a tariff changes and two years of work are down the drain.”
Hundal reinforced the message that international statesmanship was essential. He looked forward to the United Nations Climate Change Conference opening in New York in the coming days and also the Conference of the Parties negotiations in Paris in November 2015.
“On Tuesday when Ed Miliband gives his speech to the Labour conference, David Cameron is going to be in New York standing next to Barack Obama and Ban Ki-Moon and they’re going to do a deal almost behind the scenes about how they deal with Paris and where Britain stands with regards to climate change.
“They will be taking pictures, but what is the UK government saying on this? And what is Labour saying on this? To me this is still not clear… this is almost a dereliction of duty. Given Ed Miliband’s strength as an environment minister, why is Labour still not doing enough?”
The Putin Problem
He added: “Ed still cannot get elected unless he deals with the ‘Putin problem’ on the international stage – can this guy stand up and project British strength to someone like Putin? This is not so much about policy but our standing and the image we project onto the world. Is Ed the man to do that?”
The Labour party should make a commitment to regulating tracking and using nuclear power as a bridge to a low carbon economy, he argued. The Liberal Democrats will, in the eight months leading to the general election, use environmental issues to try and rebuild trust with its core constituency.
Reynolds has recently visited Bangladesh and was mindful of the international ramifications of British government action on climate change. But he insisted that, in the current economic climate, voters would only support environmental measures that also brought financial benefits.
“Energy efficiency is the bit of climate change people can get into because it has an immediate benefit and energy poverty is among the most important issues of our day,” he told the Labour party delegates and charity workers.
“Ed was popular and well received as secretary of state for the environment and so people want him to say and do more. But the issue that will decide the next election will be how people feel about their wage packets and the economy – but that does not mean that climate change and Paris will not be a central part of our foreign policy.
“It is easy to say things internationally and even sign international agreements, but delivering it domestically is absolutely essential,” he argued. “This is not about international conference or agreements between leaders. We need a policy mix on the ground that has tangible benefits for people.”
Meanwhile, the Green Party, he argued, had failed to gain credibility. “They can’t take the public with them. You can’t say to the public let’s close down the economy and have massive unemployment. This is about bringing people with us and that absolutist approach will not work… the Greens, because of their opposition to nuclear, could not challenge climate change.”
Reynolds said government ministers, including Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat secretary of state for climate change, and Tory Amber Rudd, were genuinely concerned about environmentalism. But he attacked Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for community and local government, George Obsorne, the chancellor, and the recently sacked environment minister Owen Paterson.
He said: “I don’t doubt the personal commitment of people like Amber and Ed and if you invite them to the party, that’s great. But then you realise they have also brought Pickles, and Osborne has driven the car and until recently Paterson would be hiding in the boot.”