Richard Benyon is a former Environment Minister and is MP for Newbury.
This week, Commonwealth leaders meet in London for the first time since 1986. The summit will reaffirm our shared values – our commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. It will also underline the shared challenges we face – including how we protect our environment for future generations.
As Margaret Thatcher understood when she made her landmark speech to the UN in 1989, action on climate change must be international. She described our ability to come together to stop or limit damage to the world’s environment as “perhaps the greatest test of how far we can act as a world community.”
As a country, we are already making good progress. Since that speech, the UK has reduced its emissions by more than 40 per cent, while growing our economy by more than two thirds – the best performance in the G7 on a per person basis. We are also one of the world leaders in conservation: from the recent ivory ban to the commitment of nearly four million square kilometres of British waters to a ‘Blue Belt’ of protection by 2020.
So as we welcome the leaders of 52 other Commonwealth nations to the UK, we have the chance to show the impact that we can make as a leader in the international community. With many Commonwealth nations being ocean or coastal states it is vital that we discuss how we eliminate the plastic waste brought to the surface of our collective consciousness in Blue Planet II – but also how we reduce emissions, and halt the warming of our seas that could alter them beyond recognition. Commonwealth nations such as Bangladesh and Fiji are particularly threatened by climate change, and the subsequent rising sea levels – which is why I welcome the news that the Government will seek the advice of the CCC on strengthening our climate targets so that they are in line with the Paris Agreement.
As the Queen knows, our membership of the Commonwealth offers a unique opportunity to take the lead. The start of CHOGM was yesterday marked by “The Queen’s Green Planet” – a programme in which, interviewed by Sir David Attenborough, the Queen discussed the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, a wonderful forest conservation initiative. From the Botanic Gardens in Singapore to the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada, this preservation plan will involve all 53 commonwealth countries in one shared endeavour: protecting and enhancing some of the most beautiful and important forests in the world. It mirrors afforestation efforts being taken here at home, such as the creation of the Northern Forest, which will comprise of over 50 million trees.
The planting of many more trees will deliver huge benefits – from improving air quality in our towns and cities to mitigating flood risk. They also act as a crucial carbon sink. As we move to a net zero emissions society, as we must to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, forests old and new will play a vital role as natural carbon capture and storage.
The royal family have long been known to care deeply about our environment, and have also recently announced plans to reduce single-use plastics across its palaces and operations. Indeed, the Queen embodies a healthy cross-society consensus on the need to tackle climate change that stretches from conservationists like the RSPB to institutions like the Women’s Institute.
We live in particularly polarised times, yet all of us, from card-carrying Conservatives to the ardent Corbynista, agree on the importance of tackling climate change in order to protect our environment for future generations. Ten years ago the Climate Change Act was passed with support from right across the house – indeed, only three MPs voted against it. This cross-party consensus is something to be proud of, and the Act has inspired action around the world. Last year, China was the country that alongside the UK, reduced its emissions by the greatest amount. Perhaps in an age of increasing international instability, action on climate change, just as it is in the UK, can act as the bridge between societies with different politics and different worldviews. We all live on the same planet, and will all share in the disaster if we fail to act. The Queen is to be applauded in her efforts to build this bridge and preserve our environmental heritage – and as ever, we should look to follow her lead.