Sam Hall is Director of the Conservative Environment Network
Last week, Extinction Rebellion triggered an important debate about the UK’s response to climate change and biodiversity loss. Many will disagree with their demands, particularly the 2025 net zero emissions target, which experts agree is unachievable. But there is much to admire in their passion for tackling these vital challenges of our time.
We should all share their urgency for stronger action, as there is no doubt that we must do more and faster to arrest these environmental crises. It is important that conservatives respond to Extinction Rebellion, not by ridiculing them, but by proposing our own ambitious, market-based policies for decarbonisation and nature restoration.
We should of course celebrate the strong conservative record on the environment, from Margaret Thatcher’s seminal speech on climate change at the UN General Assembly and her role in the global agreement to phase out ozone-depleting CFCs, to the recent world-leading net zero emissions target and coal phase-out policy. The UK as a country, and Conservatives as a political movement, have done more than most to tackle the major threats to our environment. Protesters do not give enough credit for what has been achieved to date.
But we cannot be complacent. There is much more to do. We are not yet on track to meet our 2050 net zero target or even the next two interim targets. Biodiversity loss continues at an alarming rate, with the most recent State of Nature report showing that 41 per cent of UK species have declined since 1970. Michael Gove rightly said a few months ago that the UK was “now among the most nature-depleted nations in the world”.
Just as the UK has fought illegal poaching to ensure that our grandchildren don’t grow up in a world without rhinos and lions, so too we should fight at home to protect our precious species that are under threat and start to restore those that we have lost.
We should be optimistic about conservatives’ enthusiasm for meeting these challenges. This year’s Conservative Party Conference showed that ministers, MPs, councillors, and members now firmly view the environment as a top priority. The Government’s first set of pre-conference announcements were all related to the environment: a £1 billion fund to support the development of the electric vehicle supply chain; stronger standards for energy efficiency and low-carbon heating in new homes; and a new forest in Northumberland.
The Conservative Environment Network hosted 16 events across the three days on a diverse set of green topics. These ranged from the potential for artificial intelligence to support net zero and the role of councils in tackling air pollution, to planting a new Northern Forest and British international leadership on the environment. Large numbers of enthusiastic Conservative activists of all ages and backgrounds, and from all parts of the country, attended and voiced their support for continued conservative environmental leadership.
Also at party conference, CEN launched a new network for Conservative councillors. From the front line of local politics, councillors reported how they are now facing fierce competition in their wards on environmental issues from Greens, Labour, and Liberal Democrats. Many have recently declared climate emergencies and set net zero targets for their areas. They now want to implement green conservative policies rather than copy the left’s solutions.
Encouragingly, there was a glut of green events hosted by centre-right think tanks, where speakers proposed and debated market-led solutions to climate change and the decline in nature. There was a dedicated ‘Environment Zone’ in the main exhibition space, placing the environment physically at the centre of the conference. And the party arranged a dedicated clean growth panel on the main stage, featuring four cabinet-level ministers.
The environment is a huge political opportunity for Conservatives. It is a unifying issue that could bring the conservative movement, and indeed the country, together post-Brexit. Moreover, as a result of the climate policies adopted by Labour at its conference, there is now the political space for conservatives to win.
Labour has proposed sweeping renationalisation of much of the energy sector and a 2030 net zero target. A 2030 net zero target is unfeasible and ignores the advice of the independent experts on the Committee on Climate Change, while nationalisation would deter additional private-sector investment in our already world-leading clean energy sectors such as offshore wind and increase the cost of net zero for consumers by increasing risk for investors and reducing competition.
In the run-up to hosting the international climate summit in Glasgow next year, the Government should bring forward a major package of climate and nature policies to showcase conservative environmental leadership. These could include additional auctions to build new offshore wind farms, an incentive scheme for land owners to plant trees and restore peat bogs on their land, and private-sector-led infrastructure programmes for home insulation and electric vehicle charge points.
The conservative movement has never been as enthused by environmental issues as it is now. We must harness this energy and translate it into an enduring conservative legacy through market-led solutions to these pressing environmental challenges.