Ben Caldecott is Associate Fellow, and Sam Hall a Researcher, at Bright Blue.
Conservatives instinctively understand the need to safeguard our environmental inheritance and to hand it on, enhanced, to future generations.
Margaret Thatcher was articulating this when she told the Conservative Party conference in 1988: “It’s we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth – we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease.”
Throughout modern history, conservatives have been in the vanguard of environmental action.
A Conservative Government passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, banishing lethal smog from urban centres, and President Ronald Reagan helped bring about the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which phased out Chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) from the upper atmosphere.
The current Conservative Government has promised to phase-out coal-fired power stations by the mid-2020s, as suggested by Bright Blue last year.
This makes Britain the first country to use coal for electricity and now the first major economy to commit to phasing it out. Conservatives can point to an impressive environmental record.
Yet there are some within the conservative movement that seek to reject this tradition. Many deny the very existence of anthropogenic climate change.
Some are using the steel crisis to rehearse their long-standing opposition to climate policies, despite research showing that they contribute just one per cent of the total production cost of steel.
Critics of green policies often portray environmentalism as anathema to economic growth. Yet there is mounting evidence that the long-standing link between emissions and economic performance is now being broken.
Between 2010 and 2014, the UK has cut its carbon emissions by 20 per cent while growing its economy by 27 per cent. Globally, in 2014 and 2015, emissions stalled while the overall economic activity increased.
The historic Paris agreement in November 2015 affirmed the global commitment to decarbonisation. Figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance show that 2015 saw record investment of $329 billion in clean energy.
The green energy revolution is under way and is gathering pace every year, with businesses and governments increasingly committing resources to this transition. If Britain is to remain competitive in the new global economy, we must transform too. Environmental action is key to economic growth.
This means rejecting the old growth model dependent upon heavily-subsidised, finite fossil fuels, and developing a new economy powered by clean, renewable sources.
Securing a competitive advantage in this new global marketplace, by developing the technologies, building the infrastructure, and manufacturing the products, will create high value-added, complex, and capital intensive economic output, able to drive growth, employment, and exports. Investment decisions being made now must reflect this economic imperative.
For example, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment have warned that fossil fuel power stations cannot be built beyond 2017 if the world is to meet its climate targets.
It is vital that there are strong green voices on the centre-right to counter the sceptics. Otherwise, environmental policy risks becoming the preserve of the political left. This gives the left a free-hand to design environmental policies that reflect certain ideological preferences, including for state- over market-led solutions.
If we are to build effective policies and public support to tackle urgent environmental problems, we need compelling and credible solutions from a centre-right perspective too.
That’s why this week we are launching Bright Blue’s new Green Conservatism project.
On a range of subjects – from tackling air pollution to protecting our natural environment and improving domestic energy efficiency – Bright Blue will be recommending new policies over the course of this Parliament to push the Prime Minister into ensuring this really is “the greenest government ever”.