Sam Barker is Director of the Conservative Environment Network.
Contrary to the Cassandras, this week wasn’t a bad week for the environment.
It was in fact particularly good: at least in its 1989 and 2015 vintages. And not bad in this year, either.
On the 8th November 1989 Margaret Thatcher gave the UN General Assembly both glorious barrels on the ‘threat to our global environment’.
As always, she started with the scientific facts:
“We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere…we are seeing the destruction on a vast scale of tropical forests which are uniquely able to remove carbon dioxide from the air… We now know, too, that great damage is being done to the Ozone Layer by the production of halons and chlorofluorocarbons”.
Indeed, a whole section of the speech is dedicated to ‘the latest scientific research’. She peppered the speech with references to Charles Darwin, Fred Hoyle, the British Antarctic Survey, the Polar Institute, the British Meteorological Office – beautiful understating her country’s scientific dominance. It was she who set in train the climate modelling that has caused so much debate since.
Characteristically, Lady Thatcher then turned to the pragmatic economics, in a statement that made her, perhaps, the first major proponent of clean growth:
“But as well as the science, we need to get the economics right. That means first we must have continued economic growth in order to generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment. But it must be growth which does not plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow. And second, we must resist the simplistic tendency to blame modern multinational industry for the damage which is being done to the environment. Far from being the villains, it is on them that we rely to do the research and find the solutions.”
And finally, she did not shy away from the moral responsibility of mankind:
“We are not the lords, we are the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself—preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder.”
The speech was a tour de force, and much pain might have been avoided if its prescriptions had been followed.
In 2015, our current chancellor, Philip Hammond, spoke on a similar theme to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. As with Lady T, he lashed out at a left wing who “believe we have to sacrifice economic growth and prosperity” to meet the threat of climate change. He concluded:
“As conservatives, we know the responsible thing to do is tackle threats when we see them, and to do so in ways which preserve our future security and prosperity. And we know the smart thing to do is harness the power of the market to tackle the challenges of climate change.”
So what of the same week in 2016?
Well in the UK Greg Clark set out plans to upgrade UK energy infrastructure and increase clean energy investment. This included plans to phase out unfiltered coal power from the UK grid, with the benefits to health and energy security (ConHome readers will recall this from Nick Hurd last year). In Marrakech, nations continued discussions on implementing the Paris agreement (a business for which the UK has considerable comparative advantage in governance, services and finance). In New Delhi, the Prime Minister’s deals with President Modi included strengthening the $1.1bn masala bond market (and the first dedicated green bonds); R&D collaboration on solar energy storage and energy efficient building materials (and joining India’s ‘International Solar Alliance’); and the promise of a UK/India energy conference in 2017.
Some readers might by now be clamouring about the GOP elephant in the room. And yes, The Donald has at best described himself as ‘somewhat of an environmentalist’. But if he wants the “clean air… and crystal clean water” he is committed to, he will have to make some accommodations with Richard Nixon’s Environmental Protection Agency. Indeed he may find, in office, that his room for manoeuvre is restricted. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement he wants to cancel, a country can only announce its withdrawal after it has been in force three years, and must give a year’s notice before withdrawal takes effect. This puts any withdrawal on the eve of the 2020 U.S. election.
Most of all, he is a businessman, and you make money in business following the numbers not the rhetoric. Last year, Philip Hammond pointed out that low-carbon is a $6 trillion business, about nine per cent of the world economy, and growing at four to five per cent a year. The Chinese economy is de-smogging fast as they look to deliver quality of life and domestic energy security.
As Lady Thatcher said 26 years ago:
“We must have growth…to pay for the protection of the environment…which does not plunder the planet today.”
This week was a good week for that.