This letter was sent to Nadhim Zahawi, the MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, on 1/7/2020, on behalf of Stratford Climate Action and five other local environmental groups. Mr Zahawi is Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the current government. A reply from him is printed below, with permission.

Dear Mr Zahawi,

What is the point in struggling, for what might be 10 years, to restore an ‘old’ normality, when we know the breakdown of our planet’s natural systems means we need to transition to a ‘new’ normality within the same 10 years?

As climate action groups in your constituency, we are anxious to remind you that Covid-19 has not halted the ongoing, accelerating process of climate breakdown. The peril is great. We are currently said to be ‘on track’ for around 3°C of warming by century’s end,[1] and warming will continue to rise thereafter. Paleoclimate data suggests that 2018 levels of atmospheric CO2 already commit us to an eventual 3.5°C of warming—and we are still emitting.[2] Amplifying effects from melting sea ice, deforestation, wildfires and methane releases could push this higher, faster. As Mark Lynas makes clear in his new book, Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency, from 3°C upwards we likely face runaway climate breakdown. Heating, desertification, flooding, and collapsing ecosystems could halve global food production, Lynas estimates. Shortages and price shocks will drive conflict, and hundreds of millions of climate refugees will flee regions in which life is no longer possible. Compared to this, the Covid-19 crisis will seem a minor disturbance.

We believe it is necessary to put the climate crisis at the heart of the response to Covid-19. Where the response to Covid-19 allows measures to combat climate breakdown too, they must be taken. What is the point in struggling, for what might be 10 years, to restore an old ‘normality’, when we know the breakdown of our planet’s natural systems means we need to transition to a ‘new normal’, within the same 10 years? At the same time, the experience of lockdown, and of extraordinary measures, has provided an example of how a genuinely rapid, genuinely urgent transition to carbon neutrality could proceed, at a pace far faster than the Committee for Climate Change imagined in their proposals for 2050 carbon neutrality. We call on you to use Covid-19 expenditure, and other measures, to get your stated aim of a transition to carbon neutrality by 2050 back on track, and to speed this up to a 2030 date.

Given the severity of the threat, all areas of policy should now be subordinated to the task of responding to the climate emergency, but in light of Covid-19, we would especially like to emphasise the need for action in the three following areas:

  1. Restructure the economy.

In her book, The Case for the Green New Deal, Ann Pettifor writes that “we can afford what we can do.” To suggest otherwise would seem paradoxical. Yet although it is technologically possible for us to become carbon neutral well before 2050, your government has trailed behind other parties in terms of ambition and willingness to invest. Your government’s track record is one of worrying about balanced budgets, and of cutting public services to attempt to achieve this. However, the argument—made by Mark Blyth amongst others—that the main impact of austerity has been to hold back the economy, whilst increasing suffering and social tensions, seems to us very strong. Moreover, Covid-19 has itself taken us irrevocably beyond the possibility of balanced budgets for the foreseeable future. Finally, Covid-19 is itself only a taster for the economic damage and disruption climate breakdown will cause, which will dwarf the expenditures necessary to limit it. On one estimate, warming of 3.7°C would cost $551 trillion dollars in economic damage, almost twice the wealth of today’s world.[3] Given the stakes, we call on you to definitively reject the logic of austerity, and to develop an extensive, consistent and integrated program to stimulate the economy through investment in a green transition.

Covid-19 is itself only a taster for the economic damage and disruption climate breakdown will cause

As the economy is now dependent on state spending, the government currently has great power to reconstruct and reorder the economy, away from its dependence on fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. We therefore call on you to follow the suggestion of the Environmental Justice Commission, the Governor of the Bank of England, and of the 200 leading businesses who have written to the Prime Minister,[4] to only support companies that are clearly committed to, and capable of, reduction of their fossil fuel usage to near zero.[5] Where this is not feasible, big polluters must be nationalised and decommissioned, whilst their workers are furloughed, and provided with retraining and a guarantee of jobs in new green industries. We also call on you to maintain local council funding, and to reverse previous cuts, to allow them to properly function as independent focuses of action and initiative in pursuit of their own plans for carbon neutrality, in Stratford-upon-Avon’s case by 2030.

  1. Reduce road traffic.

One of the biggest sources of domestic emissions is transport, especially in Stratford District, where it accounts for 56% of emissions. Electrification is not going to be enough in itself, and air pollution, congestion, and public health are additional reasons to reduce traffic. In the government’s recent report Decarbonising Transport, Grant Shapps clearly envisages a great reduction in car use: “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”[6] We welcome this turn in government thinking, and recognise the measures Mr Shapps has already introduced, including during the Covid-19 crisis.

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed that many jobs can be done perfectly well from home, and business meetings can be held online

But there are other things that can be done. We want you to make clear to councils and the public that temporary arrangements for pedestrianisation, road reallocation, and pop-up cycle lanes should be viewed as stepping stones towards more permanent measures. Furthermore, the Covid-19 crisis has revealed that many jobs can be done perfectly well from home, and business meetings can be held online. We call on you to require big employers to conduct audits of their operations under lockdown, to identify which jobs or meetings can be done from home, or via online meetings, to reduce traffic density, and to use laws, tax policy, or other incentives, to require that transit by car or plane is used only as necessary. Above all, this must apply to the use of private jets for business flights. As working from home will be difficult or undesirable for many people for personal reasons, we call on you to set up neighbourhood office hubs to give people the choice of working from home or in a social environment. We call on you to invest in free high-speed broadband to facilitate this. Finally, we call on you to cancel HS2, an environmentally destructive project for which the environmental case has evaporated, for which the business case is dubious, and for which the construction industry can be more than compensated by genuine green investment.[7]

  1. Restructure the agricultural system.

The causes of pandemics like Covid-19 and of climate breakdown overlap. Industrial agriculture, and especially meat and dairy farming, is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (c. 10% of the UK’s total) and the leading cause of deforestation worldwide. Beef and lamb, in particular, are notoriously inefficient ways of using energy and land to produce food. And in 2017 Michael Gove warned existing agricultural practices were likely to eradicate our soil’s fertility within 30-40 years, echoing similar warnings from scientists.[8] Factory farming of animals is also the main source of zoonotic diseases: 75% of new diseases now originate with animals, most from agriculture.[9] Covid-19 may have arisen in the Wuhan wet market, but other pandemics have originated in more orthodox agriculture, such as the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009, which killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Conditions in factory farms—with herds of genetically similar animals living in cramped, squalid conditions, with compromised immune systems compensated for by mass use of antibiotics—favour the spread and increasing virulence of antibiotic-resistant diseases. And whilst recent versions of bird and swine flu have been more deadly but less contagious than Covid-19, this could change in future. It is imperative that we reform these practices now, before an even more dangerous pandemic erupts.

The causes of pandemics like Covid-19 and of climate breakdown overlap … It is clear fundamental reform of agriculture is necessary, both in terms of what is produced, and how

It is clear fundamental reform of agriculture is necessary, both in terms of what is produced, and how. Post-Brexit, the UK has an opportunity to seize this possibility. We want you to use this to support farmers in transitioning to permaculture farming and tree-husbandry, and to prepare for the introduction of urban farming, insofar as renewable energy can support it. We are aware that the Agriculture Act will make farm subsidies contingent on environmental targets. It is important, as the EAT Lancet study points out, that agricultural sustainability is judged at the systems rather than the farm level, so that excessive amounts of land are not wasted on luxury meat products.[10] It also seems critical that these efforts must not be undercut by cheap US imports after a post-Brexit trade deal.

We believe the current situation represents an opportunity to widen the discussion around climate breakdown: to include Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC), who are disproportionately subject to the ills of both COVID-19 and climate breakdown; and to include the young people, who evidently see these links to issues of race. We agree with Friends of the Earth who in 2017 declared support for Black Lives Matter UK, stating that it is ‘undeniable that black communities have suffered the most’ and that the ‘poor marginalised and indigenous communities who are first to feel the effect of climate breakdown are overwhelmingly people of colour.’ Naomi Klein, responding to Black Lives Matter in 2014, has said that ‘Racism is what has made it possible to systematically look away from the climate threat for more than two decades’. Today, the overwhelmingly sympathetic response to the Black Lives Matter protests from both BIPOC and white citizens provides an opportunity which we in the environmental movement must take to become more aware of the racial dimensions of climate breakdown. We call on you, as our elected representative, to likewise work to broaden the discussion to include BIPOC citizens, and the ways in which they are disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and climate breakdown.

We look forward to hearing your response, and would like to meet to discuss these issues, at a time of your convenience and via a video-call if necessary. We have shared this letter on our website and Facebook page, for the benefit of our members.

Yours,

Stratford Climate Action

Stratford-upon-Avon Friends of the Earth

Extinction Rebellion, Stratford-upon-Avon

YouthStrike4Climate, Stratford-upon-Avon

Henley Climate Action

Snitterfield Actioning Climate Change

[1] https://climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/

[2] http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2018/20181206_Nutshell.pdf

[3] Reported in David Wallace Wells’ book, The Uninhabitable Earth.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/01/top-business-leaders-call-on-boris-johnson-to-set-out-green-recovery-plan

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/16/bank-of-england-failing-climate-with-covid-19-stimulus-programme-oil-firms-debt-bond-governor?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_News_Feed&fbclid=IwAR1PFDUtyAEMrBBkBSjYdrKBqBk6m7GVfZUx47ryiqyS2lD6RlULCAHmSP0

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/creating-the-transport-decarbonisation-plan

[7] http://stophs2.org/

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/24/uk-30-40-years-away-eradication-soil-fertility-warns-michael-gove

[9] https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html

[10] https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/

Response from Nadhim Zahawi

Dear Stephen

Thank you for your letter on behalf of Stratford Climate Action; Stratford-upon-Avon Friends of the Earth; Extinction Rebellion, Stratford-upon-Avon; YouthStrike4Climate, Stratford-upon-Avon; Henley Climate Action and Snitterfield Actioning Climate Change. I will address each section of your letter in turn.

I fully agree that tackling Climate Change needs to be central to the economic recovery from Covid-19 and that many of the significant changes that have had to take place to deal with this pandemic have shown that we are capable of fast and rapid change in the UK. And I also agree that we should and must now double down on our efforts to reach Net Zero.

I understand your point about extending the Government’s current economic interventions into more permanent arrangements. However this is not a view I share. Schemes like the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, or the furlough scheme, are expressly temporary and have been designed to mitigate and offset the immediate economic shocks caused by coronavirus and the resultant lockdown. To have this level of Government intervention in the economy on a permanent basis would be, in my opinion, unsustainable.

On reducing pollution from road traffic, I agree that we need a combination of both more electric cars and less overall car usage. Whilst decisions on town planning and local traffic management are better handled by Local Authorities – and rightly so – I agree that on a national level we can encourage businesses to continue remote working where possible and look at new ways to make working more flexible so that employees are not having to travel so much.

Flexible working and home working practices are things that have very obviously been accelerated during lockdown. I can also confirm, subject of course to further consultation, the the Government is looking to introduce steps in an Employment Bill to make flexible working the default for all employers, unless employers have good reason not to permit it.

On HS2, you will know my views on the matter from previous correspondence and they remain the same.

On restructuring the agricultural system, I agree that leaving the European Union gives the UK a significant opportunity to make changes for the better. The Agriculture Bill, which has now passed the House of Commons and is being considered in the House of Lords, sets out how farmers and land managers will in future be paid for “public goods”, such as better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding.

The Bill also makes provisions for a new environmental land management (ELM) system which will provide an income stream for farmers and land managers who protect and preserve our natural environment. The system is intended to accord farmers and land managers more autonomy to decide for themselves how to deliver environmental benefits from their businesses and their land, and how they integrate this into their food, timber and other commercial activities. I hope that this can deliver significant change for the way we manage our agriculture and land in the UK

I share your assessment of how BIPOC people are more adversely affected by Climate Change around the world, and that it is often Third World and developing countries who suffer most from consequences like rising sea levels. This only strengthens my own resolve to double down on Climate Change and drive towards Net Zero. It is also true that these communities have suffered more from Covid-19 within the UK and the Government is currently looking in greater detail at the reasons behind this. 

I apologise that I was unable to take part in the virtual lobby organised by the Climate Coalition on that particular day. However I would be very happy to attend a virtual meeting with you to discuss this further. My Personal Assistant, Katie … (copied), will be able to liaise with you to find a suitable time to do this.

I look forward to speaking further with you then.

Warm regards

Nadhim

Nadhim Zahawi
MP for Stratford-on-Avon