Sam Hall is a senior researcher at Bright Blue.
Environment policy in the UK has had a good couple of months. Since returning to government, Michael Gove has enthused and delighted environmentalists, even garnering unlikely praise from George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist .
Gove’s impressive list of policy achievements already encompasses, among others: restrictions on the use of tiny plastic particles in cosmetics that harm marine wildlife; a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040; longer prison sentences for those convicted of animal cruelty; and a near-complete ban on the sale of ivory products to reduce elephant poaching.
More promising still is his stated intention to refocus farm subsidies, once the UK has left the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, on commissioning environmental services such as tree planting from farmers. This is the real green prize of Brexit.
Last month also saw the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, an ambitious and comprehensive set of measures to ensure the UK meets its legally-binding climate change targets.
As well as containing the welcome recognition that decarbonisation is fundamental to higher productivity and a stronger industrial strategy, the plan announced an additional auction in 2019 for new offshore wind capacity, a fresh government push to boost business and household energy efficiency, and ambitious plans for a new network of forests. Claire Perry, the climate change minister, too deserves serious credit from green groups.
So as delegates of Bright Blue’s green conservatism conference gather in Westminster today to debate new centre-right ideas for protecting the environment, they will be in good spirits.
The renewed conservative interest in environmental issues is politically timely. At the last general election, Labour consistently outperformed the Conservatives among voters aged under 47. Conservatives urgently need new policies that appeal to this crucial demographic and reverse this trend. Fortunately, there is growing polling evidence that ambitious environmental policies can help the Tories with their youth problem.
Recent Bright Blue research found that among voters under the age of 40, climate change comes second only to health in the list of issues they want to hear senior politicians discuss more. And among 18- to 28-year-olds, it comes top. We also found that 83 per cent of under-40s would be proud to vote for a party that generated more electricity from renewables like solar and wind – the same proportion who would feel proud voting for a party that banned all sale of ivory.
Despite the recent string of green measures from government, there remain several areas where conservative insights and policies are needed to further protect and enhance the environment.
First, the current system of rural payments rewards land owners and land managers according to the area of land they farm, giving large amounts of public money to wealthy landowners without necessarily receiving public benefits in return and disincentivising alternative, more environmentally-friendly uses of land.
After Brexit, this can change. The UK will be leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and will, to coin a phrase, take back control of around £3.1 billion a year to spend on domestic priorities for the countryside, such as greater biodiversity and stronger natural flood defences.
In a forthcoming report, Bright Blue will propose a new market-based scheme for rural payments in which public and private interests can commission and pay farmers, land owners, and land managers to provide ecosystem services such as planting trees and buffer strips in fields.
Second, the UK could reduce the cost of meeting its important climate change targets, as the recent Government-commissioned review in to the cost of energy by Professor Dieter Helm, an Oxford economist, found.
The cost of offshore wind has fallen dramatically in recent years, as a result of competitive reverse auctions and ministers’ making future state support contingent on the industry achieving big cost reductions. It is the right decision to keep supporting this exciting technology with further auctions.
But the Government is missing an opportunity. Study after study shows that onshore wind is the cheapest form of power generation in the UK, and yet the Government has no plans for an auction for new onshore wind capacity. Although onshore wind is cheaper than any other form of new generation, new projects are unlikely to get built without a state-backed contract that gives investors a guaranteed return on their investment, reducing their financing costs.
Rectifying this by holding an auction for onshore wind would help cut consumer bills and carbon emissions, without the need for a competition-harming price cap.
Conservatives have long believed in the importance of environmental stewardship, in the duty each generation has to the next to hand on the environment in a good condition. At a time when the UK and the world face several very pressing environmental challenges, conservative instincts are desperately needed to protect our vital natural inheritance for another generation. They might also provide a much-needed political boost to the Conservative Party as it attempts to connect with younger voters.