Richard Benyon is a former Environment Minister and is MP for Newbury.
A month ago, around thirty young people from Newbury turned up at my constituency office as I was taking my Friday surgery.
My first thought was that they had come to talk about Brexit, but no: they were taking part in Britain’s first young people’s school strike on climate change, and had come to talk to me about what they saw as a lack of Government action on what was to them an existential issue.
Although some complained about children bunking off school, for me that missed the point. I was struck by the extraordinary passion and commitment of young people for whom climate change is a clear and present threat, and whose lives will be much more affected by the problem than will middle-aged men like me.
But I was forcefully stuck by two things; the first was their lack of knowledge about what had been achieved by successive British governments, and the second was that they had a point.
For example; none of the young people in my Newbury office knew that the UK was the first developed economy to pass a Climate Change Act. One could argue that it is unreasonable to expect them to know about a dry piece of law passed when most of them were tiny children, or even before they were born, but with the Act, Britain was and is a world leader.
Since it was passed, this country has reduced its emissions by over 40 per cent – more than any other developed G7 economy. There has also been a huge leap in renewable energy, and the UK is now a world leader in new technologies like offshore wind. Internationally, our leadership in tackling climate change, the protection of our oceans, and reducing pollution is a key component of what people mean when they refer to “global Britain”.
Many of these achievements have been under Conservative governments, although we should also applaud the cross-party, consensual way that the house as a whole has approached the climate challenge.
However, the young people were also right to say that governments are failing to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change at the rate that science tells us is necessary and desirable. The science is clear: indeed, it is staring us in the face.
Last year, for example, the UN’s climate science body warned us that there was only an even chance that the world would hit global targets to keep climate change within manageable levels.
They also spoke about the absolute imperative of all countries to aim for a ‘net zero’ emissions target of around mid-century – that it, reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases as far as possible, and using negative emissions techniques such as tree planting or the restoration of degraded habitats to absorb the rest.
Again, the Conservative Government has taken a lead on this, with my colleague Claire Perry having asked the Committee on Climate Change to conduct a feasibility study on how to reach a net zero target. Because it will be challenging, but, done right, there is an economic opportunity for Britain to continue to be a centre for green growth.
And these are not only the right things to do as well; they are also popular. The British public likes renewable energy – just two per cent strongly oppose onshore wind, supposedly the most controversial. They overwhelmingly back spending money on measures which cut energy waste, lowering bills as well as greenhouse gas emissions. They back, by significant proportions, the world-leading Climate Change Act and the international Paris Agreement.
And, coming full circle, we now know that the young people on the school strikes also have the public’s backing. Survey results due to be published shortly will show a clear majority of the public endorsing their actions and demanding more of the Government on climate change.
So with the school protests spreading, from a lone Swedish teenager protesting outside the country’s parliament building last year, to over 1,200 towns and cities across more than 90 countries today, we must listen to the young people calling for more action on climate change, not just complain about their having the nerve to bunk off school. We need to agree with them that there is a problem and that much more needs to be done, and we need to explain what we are doing.
Because we will, in a few years time, have moved on from Brexit; but once we have done, the climate crisis will still present a much more intractable challenge.