12 January 2018

Gove’s green reboot is thoroughly modern and resolutely conservative


It’s remarkable quite how much trouble a party called the Conservatives has had getting to grips with the environmental conservation agenda. The values of protection, sustainable prosperity and not passing on huge ecological costs to the next generation should be fundamental to the party’s ethos.

Despite this fertile soil, the Tories’ lack of credibility in the area hit them hard during the last election, especially with under 40s, and arguably cost the Government its majority. Recent polling by the think tank Bright Blue revealed that climate change was the number one issue that 18- to 28-year-olds wanted to hear more about from politicians; among under 40s it was second only to health.

When asked what policies would make them proud of a political party, the top three all had environmental components: more renewable energy, banning ivory sales and better home insulation. Looking back, the signs were there. In a BritainThinks focus group in Harrow West attended by Guardian journalist Gary Younge, voters were asked if they would trust Theresa May to look after their house if they were on holiday. “The house yes, but not the pets” was the consensus.

Thankfully the Government has decided to address the problem with its green reboot. Theresa May outlined a 25-year environmental plan on Thursday, committing to tackle plastic waste, improve the country’s green spaces and tackle climate change – although the only concrete policy announcement was that the 5p plastic bag charge would be extended to all retailers. This comes on the heels of other announcements, including a ban on plastic micro beads, the introduction of CCTV in abattoirs and a ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Leading the charge is Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

If May is serious about changing perceptions about her party, she should follow the example of one of her predecessors, Margaret Thatcher, the first free-market environmentalist. In the late 1980s Thatcher laid the groundwork for much of the green thinking we see today. Jonathan Porritt, former head of Friends of the Earth, has said no one has done more in the last 60 years to put green issues on the national agenda than Lady Thatcher.

As one of the few politicians, let alone world leaders, to be a trained scientist, she was the first Western head of state to call for a global treaty on climate change. She also persuaded Ronald Reagan to join her in leading international efforts to phase out harmful chemicals that successfully closed the hole on the ozone layer. (Thatcher would later cool on environmental matters as the Right surrendered ground to the Left on the issue, a situation that is now being reversed.)

The environment can no longer be ignored by any serious political movement and it was Thatcher who recognised its relationship with other policy areas. In 1988 she described environmental investment as “money well and necessarily spent because the health of the economy and the health of our environment are totally dependent upon each other”.

The potential benefits of this joined-up thinking are even more numerous today. Cleaner air, brought about a reduction in car use, the promotion of electric vehicles and fewer fossil fuels increases the appeal of cycling. Studies have shown more cycling would see reductions in the prevalence of diabetes, dementia, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancer leading to savings of roughly £17 billion for the crisis-prone NHS over the next 20 years.

Similarly, more energy efficient homes would improve the health of those living in poor quality accommodation and be a much better way to cutting energy bills than a price cap. Embracing the technological advances, and falling costs, of renewable energy has the potential to revive Britain’s deprived former industrial heartlands, exemplified by Siemens’ 1000-employee wind-turbine factory in Hull. This week’s rosier productivity forecasts for the UK were boosted by an uptick in renewable energy projects.

The international benefits are also legion. Climate change denialism is now fighting its last stand from the White House as an ever more isolated and unpopular President Trump tries to hold back the tide of progress. To stop Brexit being seen as a Trump-lite rejection of the world, and of foreigners, Britain could do much worse than filling the leadership vacuum on climate change vacated by the President. The Powering Past Coal Alliance, spearheaded alongside the Canadian government and climate change minister Claire Perry, who now attends Cabinet, is a good start and has already seen 26 other nations commit to end burning coal.

An embrace of green economic and social policy can no longer be considered a sharp swing to the Left. It is instead, the only responsible way of creating a forward looking, future-proof, modern country that takes its global responsibilities seriously and will pass on a better world than the one it inherited.

Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid