Sam Richards is Director of the Conservative Environment Network.
Last December, Conservative MPs were briefed on Number 10’s strategy for the coming year. Beneath the roof of Brexit and the economy would sit three supporting pillars: housing, education, and the environment.
Conservative environmentalism is a well-established tradition built on solid philosophical principles: just as we balance the books to avoid saddling our children with debt, so too we have a duty to future generations to leave our country and our planet in a better state than we found it. As Lady Thatcher put it: “No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy — with full repairing lease.” Yet the idea gained new traction after polling showed that the top issue younger voters – who deserted the party at the 2017 General Election – wanted to hear more about from politicians was climate change. Suddenly, following in the Iron Lady’s footsteps on green issues was no longer simply virtuous; it became politically expedient.
Green issues have of course also been driven up the agenda by a determined new Secretary of State. Soon after returning to Cabinet, Michael Gove produced first a trickle, then a torrent, of policy announcements. Plastic microbeads, harmful to marine life, were banned – with cotton buds and plastic straws soon to follow. A plastic bottle deposit return scheme is to be established, and CCTV to be installed in slaughterhouses across England. A bill banning the sale of ivory has just this week landed in Parliament.
These small but meaningful policy changes are sometimes wrongly derided as pure headline fodder. To pick just one example: the introduction of CCTV to our abattoirs will ensure that even at the very end of their lives, animals are treated with respect. And beyond these smaller policies, there is the potential for a genuine transformation of the British countryside.
The Government’s planned reforms to rural payments – linking public money to public goods and prioritising the enhancement of nature – could put British farming on a sustainable footing for the long run, while delivering cleaner air, clearer water and healthier habitats. They would also boost carbon sequestration – needed if we are to meet the Government’s ambition of bringing our climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement, and enshrining into law a net zero target (as supported by over 100 Parliamentarians, including former party leader Lord Howard).
This new net zero target would mean Britain no longer contributing to climate change – a remarkable achievement for the home of the industrial revolution. It will also send the clearest signal to younger voters that the party cares about the planet they will inherit.
Yet there is more to do if the Government is serious about securing the “win” on the environment. The Government has promised a new Principles and Governance Bill to set up a new environmental watchdog and green principles policy after Brexit, but Conservatives with an eye to genuine green growth can aim so much higher. The Prime Minister and Gove aim, like Thatcher, to pass on our environment in a better condition than they found it. That will require a new Environment Act, setting a clear legal path towards breathable air and greater biodiversity.
Investing in our environment can head off some of the biggest risks to businesses and communities like flooding, pollinator decline and polluted air. These add up to billions of pounds of environmental liabilities that can be reduced at a fraction of the cost through environmental action. But the real prize is the growth agenda. We’re on the cusp of a green economic revolution that could see large-scale capital investment in environmental projects that, as discussed, will help diversify farm income and create more competitive businesses from housing development to financial services.
Conservatives have always been pioneers in environmental legislation – we should have the confidence to not simply replicate EU structures but to be world-leading; the gold standard.
The guns of the sceptics are increasingly silent – not just because they have been faced down by particularly effective ministers, but because the evidence is now overwhelming. We know that the last three years have been the hottest three years in recorded human history. We know the impact that pollution is having on our children’s lungs. We know that the costs of renewable energy and electric cars are falling, while the costs of inaction on climate change are rising. The economic calculation has shifted.
We know, too, the political calculation. There are no votes in being seen as Trump-lite figures who reject advanced technologies and basic science. The Government has delivered a host of small but positive measures; now for the transformative legislation that would be good news for both the Party and the planet.