Tom Bradley provides public affairs and policy advice for one of the UK’s largest energy companies. A former parliamentary candidate, he is currently a Conservative candidate in May’s Gloucestershire County Council elections. He has held a number of positions in the voluntary party.
Bright Blue’s recent report, Going Greener: Public attitudes to net zero, is a much-welcomed addition to the discussion around net-zero and decarbonisation, and focuses on an area that is all too often lost in the policy debate: that of consumer acceptability.
What is clear, both from this report and from the plethora of polling and research out there, is that the public are in favour of decarbonisation. Reducing harmful emissions is seen as a positive thing, and a principle that all (or most) can support.
Indeed, we have seen our political narrative transformed in recent years, as all parties seek to strengthen their environmental credentials, and successive Governments seek to be the ‘greenest government ever’.
The Conservative Party is no exception to this, and has successfully adapted environmentalism into its mainstream thinking – much to the annoyance of the left who for years claimed ownership on the issue. Last month’s ten-point plan from Boris Johnson on reaching net-zero was a fantastic example of this and is to be applauded, both for its aims and ambitions, but also for the way in which it harmonised Conservative principles with environmental ones. Here is a plan that is not only good for the environment, but good for the economy as well.
However, if the policies outlined in the Prime Minister’s plan are to succeed in helping the UK to reach net-zero by 2050, then the detail of these policies needs to be even more Conservative in nature.
Only by putting the individual, the consumer, at the heart of these policies will the Government ensure their success. We are not a party of political diktats and top-down policy, but rather of one that empowers people and devolves power down to the lowest possible level. Our decarbonisation policy-making should be no different. If we are to reach net-zero, it is essential that the policies we develop work for consumers and that they will engage with them. Policies which ignore consumers will simply be ignored themselves, or fail to engage with enough people to reach our 2050 goal.
Bright Blue’s report looks not just at attitudes to decarbonisation and Net Zero, but provides welcome evidence of how people use energy now and what factors are most important to them. Many of the solutions advocated by the green lobby fail to take these into account, and risk promoting top-down and unpopular policy-making.
The findings are perhaps unsurprising. People want to be able to heat their homes quickly, affordably, and with minimal disruption. People want to have control over their own heating system. People do not want to have to make major changes to their homes. Whilst nobody would be surprised by these findings, these simple principles are often missing from many of the solutions advocated as routes to Net Zero.
That is not to say that solutions that are ‘consumer friendly’ do not exist, they do. Hydrogen offers just one such route, with ‘hydrogen-ready’ boilers already developed and coming to market.
Whilst decarbonisation is now a matter of political agreement, how we achieve it is still up for debate. By adopting policies that put the consumer front and centre, the Conservative Party has an opportunity not only to present itself as a ‘green’ party, but to help to save the environment in a way that is both popular and empowering.
In doing so, it has the potential to put clear blue water between the Conservatives and Labour, with Labour seemingly favouring a top-down approach. Indeed, over the coming years, in areas where Labour are in power locally, we can expect to see wildly unpopular policies forced onto local residents, with choice and freedom sacrificed on the altar of environmentalism.
Furthermore, in putting consumers at the heart of decarbonisation policy, we would also be enabling and growing markets. Any solution to the decarbonisation challenge, and there are and will be many, should be allowed to develop and respond to consumer demand, not be foisted on people. Government policy should remain technology-neutral, and avoid picking winners to avoid picking the ‘wrong’ winner. Markets should be allowed to respond to demand.
By placing consumers at the heart of decarbonisation, we will have reached net-zero in a way that enables and supports economic growth, we will have enabled personal choice, and we will have ensured that our policy-making is bottom-up, in clear contrast to Labour’s top-down approach. Conservative principles offer the best route to decarbonisation.