As telling as what Michael Gove said to the Conservative Environment Network yesterday evening was what he did not say. According to the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman, the Education Secretary “focused on the way man relates to the environment, the need for Conservatives to protect nature for future generations, and ‘the dangers that the environment faces’ “. Asked about the role of human activity in climate change, Gove said that “man and his activities are clearly having an influence on the climate…It seems to me unarguable that climate change can have a devastating and damaging impact on societies and economies that are even less developed. And therefore it seems to me unarguable that we should seek first to lessen the impact that man might have on the climate, and secondly invest appropriately in measures to mitigate and protect individuals and societies from the impact of climate change.”
That the Education Secretary neither mentioned nor praised Britain’s carbon reduction targets may have been accidental but, whether this was so or not, he provided an attractive framework for thinking and acting about the environment. It follows from being conservatives that our presumption is to conserve things – and that clean water, clear air, green fields, productive farming, beautiful landscape, fine architecture and the variety and opulence of the animal world around us are among them. There is more to the environment than the market – and we should not believe that “a forest is best seen as potential pulp, a mountain side as a treasure chest of precious minerals, a waterfall as so much wasted energy,” as Chris Patten once put it.
Or, to borrow the words of the Prime Minister who appointed him Environment Secretary: “no generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease.” We should also agree with Gove that human activity is having an impact on the climate (though how much, and to what degree changes in that climate are driven by other factors, is endlessly debatable). None the less, it does not follow that because we believe this is so, the necessary consequence is to impose the most restrictive climate reduction targets in the world on a country that emits some two per cent of the world’s emissions. Extreme green zealots have deployed the idea of “climate change denial” to suggest otherwise – the cynicism of which is signposted by its trivialisation of the Holocaust.
But it is not denial of the human role in climate change to believe that the targets cripple growth, spur rent-seeking, and heap costs both on business and the poor – not to mention compromising supply at a time when there is a danger that the lights will go out in a not-too-distant winter. Tony Lodge has chronicled on this site how coal plants are closing early, expensive and unproductive on-shore wind farms have sprung up, and consumers are confronted by soaring energy bills. This is not to say that government should simply let emissions rise and the climate go hang. If for reasons of energy security alone, it would in any event be seeking to wean us off fossil fuels that come from unpleasant countries (it is topical to mention Vladimir Putin). The question is: how quickly – and by what means?
A new pamphlet published by the organisation which Gove was addressing suggests some answers. We will be reproducing one of the essays in Responsibility & Resilience: What the Environment Means to Conservatives, which the Network published yesterday, on this site later today. In it, Michael Liebreich writes that “feed-in tariffs are nothing less than state price controls. Renewable energy targets are indistinguishable from Soviet five year plans. Over-regulation and complex planning requirements add costs, slow down projects, reduce transparency and increase risk. Green Investment Banks are the very embodiment of state capital allocation. Capacity payments and carbon price floors are evidence of failure in the design of markets. Don’t get me started on price caps.”
One doesn’t have to agree with him about the viability of renewables to conclude that the first leg of a truly Conservative energy policy would be to unwind the targets (impossible, in all likelihood, while we remain in the EU), and allow decarbonisation to take place at a pace more manageable for business and consumers alike, not to mention our energy requirements. The second would be to move resources from subsidies to research. The latter is not a cure-all, but it is new technologies, not state targets, that will wean us off fossil fuels at a manageable economic and social price. There may be more to the environment than the market, but the environment won’t flourish without it. Anyone thinking otherwise should look east at the still-blasted landscapes of ex-communist eastern Europe.
The third would be transfer some of the cash that’s left from mitigation to adaptation, here and abroad. After all, the emerging economies will be emitting plenty of carbon for some time to come. Like time’s ever-rolling stream, debate on the scale of the effect of human activity on the climate will stretch on and on. (Matt Ridley argues that it may do more good than harm in the short-term – and believes in “a middle way between those who deny climate change is real and those who say it’s disastrous”.) In the meantime, the Climate Change Department’s own calculator suggests that only means of reducing emissions and providing supply on the scale necessary is nuclear – and that doesn’t come cheap. And Matthew Sinclair reminded ConservativeHome readers yesterday of the potential benefits of shale. I have a hankering for a body that would do for Tories and the environment what the Centre for Social Justice has done for the centre-right and social justice. Perhaps the Network can help provide.