Scott Benton is MP for Blackpool South
The 2019 Conservative Manifesto that I stood on pledged that we would “Fight climate change and protect the environment”. I supported this message then and continue to do so. We can be proud of the fact that the UK has embraced recycling and energy efficiency, amongst just some of the measures we have taken to protect the environment.
However, some Conservative members and volunteers I meet still aren’t entirely ‘sold’ on what used to be called ‘green issues’. To me, these are not just about matters of long-term environmental change and climate disruption, but are also intrinsic to our national security.
Every watt of power that can be generated domestically represents greater energy independence and thus increased security and autonomy. The last thing we want is to be subject to the whims of foreign powers that could turn off gas pipelines or stop shipments of fossil fuels, should we voice concerns about their actions on the world stage.
By diversifying our energy portfolio and including a greater percentage of renewables we can reduce our dependence on foreign energy imports.
For these reasons, I welcome such projects as the new tidal turbine generator off the north-eastern coast of Scotland, which has the capacity to meet the annual electricity demand of 2,000 homes. I also support new nuclear programmes, (provided we can be assured that they are not compromised by the involvement of foreign state actors) and welcome the creation of new offshore wind farms, provided they have the consent of local communities.
Since the election however, some campaign groups and prominent individuals have insisted that the UK is not moving far enough and fast enough – and it appears that the Government is currently minded to agree with them. But while I welcome attempts to minimise UK carbon emissions, I feel we need to have a real debate both in Parliament and the wider country about some of the realities.
Even decarbonising the UK economy according to current plans and timescales is estimated to cost £1 trillion, a heavy toll to an economy reeling from the costs of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Achieving Net Zero carbon emission is going to be a difficult and costly process. Britain has already set itself ambitious targets, and if we now try to accelerate them, the process will be even more difficult and expensive.
By pushing faster decarbonisation, we risk jobs, rising domestic energy bills, lowering living standards – not to mention power disruptions and energy insecurity. We could end up with fleets of electric vehicles but without the power to keep them running.
While Western governments sign up to new treaties and ever-stricter new targets, countries including China and India are pushing forward with dozens if not hundreds of new coal-fired power stations, with China expecting its carbon dioxide emissions to peak in 2030.
If we cannot persuade the rest of the world to follow our example, what options are we left with?
We could impose punishing tariffs on goods from countries whose dedication to decarbonisation do not match our own (with all the economic and political fallout that will ensue) or the West could decide to ‘go it alone’ and press on with decarbonization unilaterally, which could be ultimately futile.
I fear that Western governments (with the most noble intentions in mind) could implode their own economies and cause mass unemployment, while other countries’ economies will boom, fuelled by cheap fossil fuels and low regulation.
How will we be able to explain to our constituents why their bills are spiralling, why they can’t take foreign trips and have to limit their meat consumption, why they have to scrap their perfectly working cars and boilers – and why all the manufacturing jobs are gone; due to imports from polluting, environmentally unfriendly nations?
And yet we cannot do nothing; while we see extreme weather becoming more and more common, risking human life and damaging our ecosystem.
What then do I propose?
I say that we should stay on course with current targets and redouble our efforts to encourage other nations to do the same.
We should redouble our efforts and investments into clean energy research and innovation.
And we should adopt a pragmatic attitude towards the phasing out of existing technologies and practices. It is possible to protect our future without destroying our economy as a consequence.
For example, I feel that it would be more prudent to phase out old gas and oil-fired boilers and petrol and diesel cars incrementally; over a longer period, than dogmatically stick to arbitrary targets.
In closing, Britain has already invested massively in this area and can be proud of our efforts when we host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).
In short then, let us hold firm on our path to net zero, but without imposing self-inflicted wounds to our economy.