A Little Politics
It's bizarre that as we experience at least a week of really extreme temperatures, neither climate change nor biodiversity loss have yet to feature at all in the Conservative Party's latest leadership contest. It's doubly odd as the 2019 Manifesto had this pledge on its front page:
We will lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent Committee on Climate Change.
Regardless of how you feel about how we're doing to meet this promise, it was apparently a key part of their platform. The Tories have had a great record in developing renewables over the last decade plus, so this kind of aspiration wasn't just a flash in the pan.
Now one of the candidates, Suella Braverman, has this to say about net zero:
In order to deal with the energy crisis we need to suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050. If we keep it up, especially before businesses and families can adjust, our economy will end up with net zero growth.
She may have an extreme view, but the other candidates have had very little to say about climate change at all. Or indeed the environment generally. There's a thriving "turquoise Tory" caucus called the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) which numbers 200 MPs and members of the Lords, but which includes no candidate for leader.
Even though - you might think tellingly - Boris Johnson didn't mention climate change or the environment at all in his resignation speech, some of his ministers have argued that his administration has been very green. While that's at best pretty debatable, it's interesting they're making the claim. Zac Goldsmith, a CEN member, has gone further:
What is frustrating (putting it politely) is that I have numerous texts from very well known environmentalists who are shrieking publicly about Boris but who accept privately that his departure is likely very bad news for nature and climate.
He's plainly deeply worried about some of the candidates.
As Zac acknowledges, there are some bizarrely powerful anti-environment voices in the Conservative Party. "Bizarre", for several reasons.
Firstly, in numerical terms there are relatively few of them. Unfortunately, they are well funded and well placed.
Disraeli: More Cameron than Cameron
David Cameron caved in to the green crap ideologues and they're still a powerful voice. It's odd that it has become a badge of honour at titles like The Spectator to continue to publish articles promoting climate change denial (they're still doing it). It's disastrous that these people still see it as a political issue or in some way a matter of opinion. It was such a shame Michael Gove was moved on from DEFRA when he was, before he had time to properly move the needle on this.
Outside this odd bubble, however, the electorate is growing more concerned about the environment (see below). It's sheer folly to oppose action against climate change and biodiversity loss, on a purely politically expedient basis.
Spend To Save
Giving up insulation subsidies on the basis of cost seemed incredibly short sighted at the time and now a terrible mistake. As other policies like this - renewable power incentives, European clean air requirements and fuel tax, for example - it had a short term cost but much, much greater long term economic gain. It was very sad that Henry Dimbleby's key recommendations in the recent National Food Strategy were tossed into the long grass as a result of pressure from the Right. These aren't generally the kind of strategic interventionist policies which sit well with populist free marketeers!
Not just that, but most sensible environmental policies are seen to be anti-business and anti-consumer. The bottom line to many issues is that we need to consume less and pay the real cost of what we do consume. A small recent example has been the disastrous handling of the continuing pollution on the River Wye. The (then!) Environment Minister ruled that the poultry units which are pouring phosphates into the river could continue to do so, on the basis that if they had to clean their acts up they'd be operating at a competitive disadvantage. Which is sort of the point, of course. Government has so far failed conspicuously to do anything effective about abstraction and pollution in our rivers generally, despite the pressure put on them as part of the passage of the "world-leading" Environment Act.
Photo: River Action
Proper Resources Please
Sensible environmental policies are not only expensive in the short term, they're also only enforceable by big government. The new Environment Land Management Scheme was originally partly sold to MPs on the basis it would be cheap to adminster and light touch. There was no chance it would be, but it was the only way to get it actioned (as a partial consequence it's a disaster). A similar thing is going on with Biodiversity Net Gain, which turns out to be a minefield. In the meantime, the Environment Agency and Natural England are both underfunded shells, asked to do more and more with less and less.
Localism is of course a vital element of nature conservation and habitat creation projects, and the government seems to understand that. Unsurprisingly, as it has been part of Conservative philosophy for many years. When polled you can see how keen Conservative voters are to improve the wildlife in their area, and one of the best parts of the Environment Act was the establishment of Nature Recovery Networks. What government is less keen to understand and fund are a national policy framework, incentives and support for this work.
Listen To The Young
The electorate does increasingly care about the environment. This is a relatively new thing, and although Tory policy gonks have been talking about it for several years now, government itself (and the opposition) has been slow to react to it.
I guess this is partly because of demographics; the young are much more concerned than the old. When polled,* 18-24 year olds consistently feel that the environment is one of the two most important issue we're facing (Source: YouGov), whereas for the over 65s it's way less significant. And it's the over 65s who vote.
The environment is a significant factor for many in marginal seats as well as for the young, though. A recent poll (Opinium UK) puts it ahead of crime, immigration, education and defence for these folk.
You'd never have guessed. A few MPs and the right wing Press constantly bang on about green crap, climate conspiracy etc etc. Anti-environmental policies are baked into their DNA. This kind of commentary can even be framed so it becomes part of a manufactured "culture war" against "snowflake youth" or "the green blob". It's deeply ironic that it was Margaret Thatcher who first raised the alarm about climate change.
Age and voting intention amplify the voice of the anti-environment minority in the Conservative Party, particularly when it comes to Party members selecting a new Prime Minister. It's at best really unhelpful for the Party itself as they are increasingly unrepresentative of the electorate. Ultimately it might even make the Tories unelectable. They will change tack at some point, of course, but I'm not sure we have the time to wait for that to happen.
In the meantime, I guess it's progress that there are fights going on over environmental policy inside the Conservative Party. And that someone thinks it's a good idea to claim their government was the greenest ever. Not forgetting "world-leading", of course.
*I know, who trusts polls etc.