Ben Goldsmith is the Chairman of the Conservative Environment Network.
As the Government begins to ease the lockdown, thoughts are turning to what kind of a world we want to live in after this is all over.
Undoubtedly, people everywhere have experienced an upwelling of love for nature during this time. Video clips have gone viral of dolphins playing in Trieste harbour, of the Himalayas seen from cities in northern India for the first time in decades, of wild boar trotting the deserted streets of Berlin.
The pace of life for nearly all of us has slowed, offering us time and space to reflect on the beauty of the world, and on what really matters in our lives. The disappearance of traffic from our roads has given us a glimpse of how clear the air can be, how riotous the birdsong, how rich with wildflowers the road verges left unmown.
But just at the moment we are most in need of nature, we find the natural fabric of our country catastrophically depleted. The British Isles now rank amongst the most nature impoverished places on Earth. Most of us, happy to find a solitary robin in our back garden, aren’t able really to grasp quite how bereft of wildlife our country has become.
‘Shifting baselines’ means that expectations diminish from one generation to the next. We’ve lost countless species altogether, and those that do remain exist in isolated, often tiny fragments of remnant nature, largely thanks to the care of a handful of dedicated nature-friendly farmers, park keepers and conservationists.
For so many of us, it is of critical importance that the Government places the restoration of the natural world at the centre of efforts to revive the economy after the crisis. As conservatives, now more than ever we recognise our role as stewards of the natural wonders with which we have been endowed, that healthy nature makes us a more resilient country, and that we bear a great responsibility towards the wellbeing of future generations.
For the Conservative Party, moreover, efforts to restore nature are politically essential now, as demonstrated by a new poll which shows just how strongly younger Conservatives support high ambition on environmental recovery and protection.
This new polling, commissioned by Unchecked UK, a network supported by leading environmental, animal welfare, and consumer organisations, asked younger Leave voters (48 years or under) their views on a wide range of regulations.
For all of us in the Conservative Environment Network, which I have chaired for eight years, these findings are hugely exciting. We’ve always held that conservatives are natural environmentalists, and that younger conservatives in particular care deeply about nature. Of younger Leave voters who voted for the party in December 2019:
- 81 per cent think that environmental regulations should be maintained or increased.
- 74 per cent support maintaining or strengthening air pollution targets.
- 74 per cent support maintaining or strengthening measures to curb over-fishing and protect marine life.
- 74 per cent support maintaining or strengthening regulations on the production and use of chemicals.
- 69 per cent support maintaining or strengthening greenhouse gas emissions targets.
- 65 per cent support maintaining or strengthening EU levels of wildlife and habitats protection.
These findings correspond with research done by Bright Blue in the past, and the work that Onward has done on the politics of belonging, reflecting the views of the new electoral coalition that gave the Government such a handsome majority in December.
The Conservative Party ignores all of this at its peril. As we embrace the opportunities offered by Brexit, younger voters are very clear that they don’t want to see the standards that protect our precious natural world undermined.
It was widely and wrongly assumed that leaving the EU would lead to worse environmental outcomes. So far, this assumption has been shown to be well wide of the mark. The new Agriculture Bill will be a truly ground-breaking piece of legislation, replacing environmentally disastrous EU-style unconditional farming subsidies with a system that rewards farmers directly for restoring nature on their land.
The Environment Bill will be perhaps the most ambitious and exciting legal framework for environmental governance of any country in the world. And we have the chance, if we get the new Fisheries Bill right, to restore life to our devastated seas.
These poll results show us that people overwhelmingly did not vote to leave the EU because they wanted to see environmental protections weakened; they voted instead to take back control of the regulatory powers required to strengthen them, and of the way in which taxpayers’ money is allocated.
Well-designed regulations represent the essential framework of the free and fair market which generates the prosperity on which all else depends. If bad players within a particular industry are given a free pass to get away with generating ‘externalities’ – costs which end up being borne by the rest of us – such as air or water pollution, soil erosion or some other destruction of nature – then the market in which they operate cannot be considered either free or fair.
“Polluter pays” regulations are therefore a tool of the free market. Not only must we continue raising the bar on environmental standards, but we must also invest in the enforcement of those standards. An underfunded Environment Agency, for example, cannot be expected effectively to guard our river catchments from slurry and other pollution.
And we can’t just foist these environmental externalities on communities abroad by exempting the importers of food and other products from the standards we apply to our own producers at home, who would consequently find themselves competing in an entirely unfair market.
Our Government faces a huge burden of responsibility right now, with obligations to continue building capacity in the NHS, helping the most vulnerable deal with the next phase of the coronavirus crisis and getting our economy growing again, all the while taking ambitious steps towards the recovery and meaningful protection of nature.
We need our politicians to think big when it comes to building the great, clean industries of the future, and to restoring nature on a grand scale. Moreover we need to reduce the likelihood of future pandemics by leading the world in resetting altogether our relationship with nature.
This is not a case of choosing between environmental goals and economic development. All of the evidence shows that preserving and enhancing the natural world directly benefits the economy, in myriad ways. How could it not be so? All economic activity is fundamentally subsidiary to nature.
In the wake of this pandemic, the whole world faces unprecedented challenges. As conservatives we have a tremendous opportunity to lead the response, and we must not cede any ground to a newly energised anti-environment lobby. We must rise to the challenge – and show the public that we are absolutely in tune with their desire for strong environmental protections.