Rory Stewart is Prisons Minister, and is MP for Penrith and the Border. He was the Environment Minister from 2015-2016.
Of course there is as – as Greta Thunberg says, and as Labour will argue in parliament today – a “climate emergency.” Ice shelves are melting at ten times their predicted rate. 39 million acres of tropical forests were lost in 2017 alone, and we risk losing more than a third of the species on earth by 2050. And that is before you count the direct cost to people.
So we cannot just recite the Government’s achievements. It is true that for the first time last week, day after day, none of our power stations burned coal – the longest period without coal since the Industrial Revolution; and that our renewable capacity has quadrupled since 2010; and that we have reduced CO2 emissions faster than any G20 Nation.
But it is absurd to dwell on what we’ve done in the past, when we face such a cataclysm. And we must be radical on the environment because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s popular. It’s true that our only hope of winning a future election after nine years in office, will be by becoming again a party of radical change that appeals to younger voters (just four per cent of Conservative voters are currently under the age of 24). But we all originally joined political parties or entered Parliament to protect and improve the world – and this is perhaps the greatest cause of our age.
This must be a citizen’s movement, as much as a government initiative, in which each individual takes dozens more steps to reduce their impact – and enjoy the benefits (so insulation is good for your bills, as well as the climate; cycling is good for your sex life, as well as your carbon emissions).
But we should not pretend that people in Cumbria are suddenly going to be able do without a car – still less buy a Tesla; nor should we forget that rural houses depend on oil and wood-stoves. Let’s not allow London to get all the attention on air quality, when central Leeds also has a serious problem. Nor allow companies off the hook. Amazon could start by dealing with their packaging, and too few car manufacturers are following Jaguar Land Rover’s push to become a zero-waste business.
Let’s make it about nature as well as climate. We need to be proud of our love – our romantic love – of our hedgerows, our uplands and indeed our hedgehogs. We could capture far more carbon, and transform our lungs and landscape by incentivising farmers to plant more native trees, not in dense plantations, but along hedgerows, and throughout our lowlands and we could easily plant not 15 million more trees, but a hundred million more trees in the next five years alone.
As the Environment Minister who signed off the plastic bag tax, I saw how a single 5p charge has already saved 6.6 billion plastic bags. Our recycling rates are a disgrace – and could be transformed overnight if we standardised the dozens of inefficient collection systems that proliferate around our country. We could do far more at a national level to reduce our carbon emissions, by working with the grain of our own island – our shallow North Sea waters are, as Professor Dieter Helm points out, perfect for storing carbon in our old oil and gas fields or for building off-shore wind.
We should be generous, caring, and cross-party in our approach to climate change, and welcome Parliament’s support for my colleague’s Alex Chalk ten minute rule bill yesterday, committing to zero carbon by 2050. And we should communicate better. (I finally understood how bad London’s air was, not when I was told that poor air quality cost two billion pounds a year, but when I realised that my toddler’s lungs could be a third underdeveloped, simply by breathing the nitrogen dioxide that chokes our streets).
But we must never not fool ourselves into thinking that the way to solve global warming is by an act of unilateral economic disarmament, that shatters our own economy, without changing the world. This is global climate change. We should plant a hundred million more trees at home, but still remember that the Amazon is 25 times bigger than the whole of Britain, and that if we continue to cut down the Amazon we are removing the lungs of the world – perhaps 20 per cent of our total oxygen. We could do much more to save our lapwings, but also much more with our aid budget to help save the lion or the Irrawaddy dolphin.
And then there’s China. China has until recently been building every year more coal-fired stations than our entire generating capacity. They now have 1000 GW of coal-fired stations (when our total capacity is about 70 GW), with hundreds more planned in China and overseas through their Belt and Road initiative. (Partly because everyone else in the world has exported their energy intensive energies from cement, to fertiliser and aluminium to China – and then imports those products back again).
Even if China reduced the proportion of its energy from coal, their total output will climb with their economic growth – and if it continuse to grow at the current rate, the economies of China, India and Africa will be eight times bigger than they are now by 2050. Our best way of Britain influencing the development of China and India – and ultimately saving our planet – is through developing new technology. A billion pounds more of our budget (and that could be partly from our international aid budget) spent on British research into the light spectrum technologies, or bringing the ingenuity we brought the Graphene to developing a new solar film could transform Chinese and Indian emissions.
But we should be very careful with our investments, however good our intentions. Britain should not have encouraged people to invest so heavily in diesel vehicles – believing it would help the environment. Nor should Germany have funnelled almost 150 billion Euros into solar and wind technologies – failing to capture the renewable market or to meet its emission targets, and ultimately being forced to build another 25 GW of coal-fired stations.
Saving our planet will require a very eclectic bunch of policies – from embracing bewildering new technology, to deepening our love of nature and history – from changing our own individual lives, to influencing China – it needs moral courage and grinding common-sense. It requires a unique philosophy of action that is unashamedly modern and romantic, individualistic and international, idealistic, popular, and practical: in short a philosophy that is Conservative.