Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.
A trend over the last decade in British politics has been a convergence of the major political parties towards near-consensus on environmental issues. Their thesis is that our current economic system will lead us towards environmental catastrophe; that the only way to avoid such catastrophe is radical innovation of that economic system; and that it must be the Government which leads this radical innovation.
Despite the impression given by media coverage and the doomsayers of the Twittersphere, these clauses are neither internally undisputed nor natural consequences of each other. Global warming is a generally accepted phenomenon, with a strong empirical basis in historic climate data and a convincing theoretical basis in our understanding of the physical chemistry of the atmosphere.
What is much less well understood is the future trajectory, the range of possible outcomes, and what policy positions might be inferred from those uncertain outcomes (for those unclear about the distinction between scientific models and reality, the current pandemic has given us some important lessons.)
That has not halted the political convergence on the necessity for urgent action. But for the Conservatives, the adoption of the rhetoric of climate catastrophism and the unquestioning call for an eco-friendly planned economy puts us in an internal ideological conflict with one of our most valued principles: that no central economic control can outperform the efficiency of the free market in exchanging resources, maximising returns on labour and assigning value to products and services. Government interventions invariably introduce inefficiencies. The best way to encourage innovation is for governments to cut regulations and generally stay out of the way.
Yet this principle seems to have taken a back seat as the proclamations of the most pessimistic of environmental oracles dominates the policy conversation. The proposals suggested in the 2019 Conservative manifesto pointed towards an economic intervention of a scale not attempted by any government since the Second World War. There is an assumption that the principle of the free market is flexible if the goal of the economic intervention is sufficiently noble.
One red flag was the apparent interchangeability of the major parties in their pledges for the 2019 general election. The Conservatives stood for “reaching Net Zero by 2050 with investment in clean energy solutions and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and pollution” and “investing in R&D; decarbonisation schemes; new flood defences…; electric vehicle infrastructure…; and clean energy.” These enormous government spending plans were proposed despite the simultaneous claim that “we believe that free markets, innovation and prosperity can protect the planet.”
Labour had similar prescriptions: “More rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills and whole new industries to revive parts of our country,” while scalding Conservatives for “leav[ing] the fate of whole industries and communities at the mercy of market forces.” The Liberal Democrats predictably followed suit, but with the added promises to plant over 100 trees per minute for the foreseeable future and an entirely unenforceable “legally binding target” on emissions for future parliaments to promptly ignore.
None of these proposals recognises the true economic or human impact of such an artificial remodelling of our entire society. Nor have they provided concrete plans for how these radical transitions might be carried out (with job losses being strategically ignored.) And those new jobs which are flaunted are unlikely to be efficient or self-sustaining. Once government support is pulled, they have a habit of promptly drying up as the reality of weak demand sets in.
The Government has a moral obligation to take sensible steps to build a regulatory environment which supports the protection of our natural one. But there is no amount of cutting red tape which will make buying a Tesla instantly affordable to the masses or will allow electric vehicle charging points to pop up on every street corner overnight. The mass repurposing of territory for solar, wind and hydroelectric requires that land be taken from someone and kept for the foreseeable future.
These barriers cannot be lowered quickly through deregulation alone. There are considerable economic, technological and logistical problems. However much some argue for state intervention on an unprecedented scale to rebuild our economy as an eco-friendly arcadia, there is no way this can be done on a short time-scale without great pain and waste. The bloat of a government attempting to rebuild our entire economic machine in an idealist vision would be horrifying to anyone calling themselves a fiscal conservative.
Green conservatism’s flaws are tied to the ideological fragility of one-nationism. In trying to be all things to all people, we have sacrificed free market economics at the altar of environmental catastrophism. We have abandoned a basic principle of our ideology for a policy position which has yet to be clearly articulated. To embrace the radical goals of the environmental lobby would require imposing further market distortions at a time when the economy is already haemorrhaging from the self-inflicted wounds of the Government’s severe and unremitting Coronavirus response.
The current government has struggled to articulate a positive vision for environmental policy. As such, we are forced to act as a brake on the radical proposals of left-wing organisations who have the media and public rapt, slowing the movement but inevitably drawn in their direction.
Conservatism is about more than tempering the madness of the left. We need an honest and consistent position on this most pressing of policy issues. Facing up to the absurdity of our current inter-party arms race to see who can come up with the boldest pledge to save the planet would be a good place to start. Net zero by 2050 sounds nice but is conveniently beyond reproach or scrutiny for at least the next six parliamentary terms.
A transition to a low-carbon economy will happen at some point. The limit to the reserves of fossil fuels necessitates this. But it must happen organically. Using state aid to drive the transition is incompatible with innovation. The British automotive industry of the 1970s was an example of the stagnation which occurs when a government permits market distortions in order to achieve political means: the workers, consumers and companies each suffer.
Some would argue that the dichotomy between environmentally-motivated economic intervention and free markets is a false one and that we can, in some unspecified way, have our cake and eat it too. This implies a flexible understanding of at least one of these principles. Conservatives should advocate for a realistic and distinct stance on environmentalism, and one which does not require the sacrifice of our key principles.