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Walking the tightrope isn't the same as treading water
On environmental issues, delivering fairness for different groups is a delicate balancing act that can only be achieved while making sustained and rapid progress
Last week’s by-election victory for the Conservatives in Uxbridge and South Ruislip has been pinned on local opposition to the imminent expansion of the Mayor of London’s ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ). The ULEZ scheme will cost drivers of non-compliant (i.e. older) vehicles £12.50 per day, and there is a concern that it will disproportionately affect poorer residents, including those who need to use their vehicles to work or fulfil other responsibilities and who cannot afford a newer, cleaner model that would escape the charge. The estimate is that only around one in ten vehicles will be affected, although it is a reasonable assumption that most of the affected vehicles will belong to poorer residents, and that the scrappage scheme (which is targeted at those in greatest need) won’t help everyone who needs support.
This is a moment of real danger for the fragile political consensus in Britain on tackling the climate crisis and broader environmental issues, including air pollution. Factions within both of the main political parties are clamouring for their leaders to build short-term political capital by watering down some of their environmental policies, emboldened by the apparent electoral lessons of last week.
As much as anything, this is an issue of fairness. The debate about whether we transition to a decarbonised economy is largely resolved, but the debate over how we transition has only just begun, and will dominate public and political discourse for decades to come. Its central question is how the transition can be made in a way that is fair – in the words of Chris Stark, head of the Climate Change Committee, it is ‘almost the only question’. As we saw with the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in France, delivering the transition in a fair way is crucial to securing legitimacy for and efficacy of the transition and building enduring public and political support. The transformation must be rooted in fairness – not only because the poorest communities are least responsible for these crises and invariably the worst affected, but because unless action to restore nature and decarbonise the economy is rooted in social and economic justice, it simply won’t succeed. The public have a veto over the net zero transition and will stop it if it isn't fair and they see no benefits.
Politicians need to balance competing fairness claims. Fairness for those most directly affected by environmental harms, including people living in deprived urban areas with high air pollution. Fairness for those most affected by green policies, including people in those same areas who depend on their vehicles and cannot afford to replace them. Fairness for future generations – the young and the unborn – whose world is being shaped by the decisions that are made now. This is genuinely difficult – but two risks in particular must be avoided. The first is to pit disadvantaged groups against each other. The second is to react by doing nothing. We must move forward on environmental issues, rapidly and decisively. Getting the fairness aspects right will propel us forward, not hold us back.
Tackling the climate and nature crises with the necessary speed and ambition must tackle economic and social injustice (and thereby promote fairness) at the same time. These two imperatives are interlinked, and must not be seen as being in opposition to each other. All decisions made must be both fair at the point of decision-making and fair throughout their implementation. The IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission argued that we should introduce a fairness lock for climate and nature policies so that people are fully involved in making decisions, costs are shared fairly, all policies are assessed for fairness, changes are accompanied by the necessary support and funding, and the UK makes a fair contribution on the international stage. IPPR also identified four lessons that the UK can learn from other countries about a fair transition to net zero, based on experiences of industrial transitions in Germany, Sweden, Canada and the US: development of a positive vision, engagement with affected communities, co-design and co-production, and sufficient funding.
There is strong public support for more rapid and decisive action by government to achieve net zero. In late 2021, Onward found that “voters overwhelmingly support tackling climate change, but enthusiasm is undermined by the costs of what it will take to get to net zero”, while Demos uncovered a public consensus on measures to cut carbon emissions. There is public support for radical action by government, as long as it meets two key tests: firstly, that it is necessary, and secondly, that it is fair. And there is plenty of research about how to communicate effectively about climate change. We know that climate issues can be framed to appeal to audiences of all political hues.
Tackling the climate and nature crises with the necessary speed and ambition must tackle economic and social injustice (and thereby promote fairness) at the same time. These two imperatives are interlinked, and must not be seen as being in opposition to each other. As a citizen’s jury set up by IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission commented, “No one can be left out. A fair response to the climate and nature emergencies needs to increase equality in society.” All decisions made must be both fair at the point of decision-making and fair throughout their implementation.
In order to increase public support for radical government action on the environment, the idea of a ‘fair transition’ as set out by the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission needs much greater airtime. The way in which this brings together the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis with the equally urgent need to tackle a broad range of socio-economic injustices (i.e. to build a fairer society), and frames this as a fair transition to net zero, has real potential to win hearts and minds, but it is not getting enough traction with the media, the public or politicians.
Everyone should benefit from a fair transition to net zero. We must make the necessary investments and take the necessary actions now. We can and must ensure that no one loses out as a result in the short term. In the long term, we will all reap the rewards of a healthier environment, a fairer society and a stronger economy.
In other news
We contributed an article on early years education and childcare to a report by Campaign for Learning, called Expanding Childcare: time for children, parents and family learning (you can also read the article, Childcare and a new social contract, on the FE News website)
We got a quick mention in an interview by Zoe Williams with Neal Lawson at Compass in today’s Guardian
We’ll be taking a break over the summer, so the next edition of Fair Comment is likely to be in early September. Have a good summer and see you then!