Tory wars over climate change. The Conservative Environmental Network v the Net Zero Scrutiny Group.

31 Mar

The Conservative Party does not find it easy being green. Though a few romantic Tory hearts may long for a Disraelian idyll of an unspoiled, eternal countryside, more recent times have seen the party blow both hot and cold over whether the planet is getting hot or staying cold, and what to do about it.

Consider four recent leaders. Margaret Thatcher was ahead of her time on climate change. David Cameron hugged huskies when visiting the Arctic. Theresa May introduced the Net Zero target which has formed a centrepiece of Boris Johnson’s premiership, most prominently at  COP 26 last year.

But those same four also had their premierships propped up by North Sea Oil, scrapped subsidies for onshore wind farms, abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change on entering Number 10, and subsidised their political career by revving Lamborghinis as fast as they could go. The Party has therefore not been so much afflicted by climate change denialism as climate change schizophrenia.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to argue that the party’s environmentalist wing of isn’t currently in the ascendant. The Conservative Environment Network announced this week that it has 133 backbenchers signed up, more than a third of the Commons party and half of backbenchers.

Prominent recent recruits include recent Cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Robert Jenrick, as well as Jeremy Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary, and Anna Frith, the new MP for Southend-on-Sea.  Meanwhile, Chris Skidmore’s more specific Net Zero Support Group claims up to 30 members. It may have been 16 years since we were asked to “vote blue, go green”, but it seems Tory MPs are finally getting the message.

Or are they? Alongside the growing number of MPs willing to be seen as committed supporters of Net Zero and environmentalism, there also are a growing number who publicly suggest that pursuing decarbonisation by 2050 is the height of folly during an energy crisis.

Craig Mackinlay’s Net Zero Scrutiny Group has claimed around 58 members, though private conversations suggest “at least 100” MPs are sympathetic. Broadly, the group aims to have the government pause or reverse a policy it believes is economically and politically disastrous. Unsurprisingly, coverage of these splits has largely played up the potential for green issues to replace Brexit as a new dividing line separating hard-line sceptics from progressive modernisers.

Is that true? According to Skidmore, suggesting that the party is divided by this is a fantasy.  Not only, as he told me, are there far more MPs supporting either the CEN or his group than Mackinlay’s, but the current energy crisis has made it more essential that the government delivers on its Net Zero agenda, not less.

Western attempts to sanction Putin have been hobbled by Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, so our national security relies on the energy security that going entirely renewable would provide. Moreover, with around two years until the next election, the Conservatives still require for a positive message for the electorate. Skidmore pointed me towards research by Onward suggesting that the Net Zero agenda can put meat on the bones of ‘levelling-up’, producing green jobs in the Red Wall that will keep those seats blue.

To say members of Net Zero Scrutiny Group were unimpressed by these arguments would be an understatement. They believe all this talk of a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ and ‘Net Zero Growth’ is ludicrous when considering looming stagflation and tripling energy bills. Whilst they do not deny that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels or cutting emissions are good ideas, they believe the current agenda is, in one’s phrasing, “pie in the sky”.

Do ministers and members of the Support Group realise the environmental impact of extracting the Zinc required for solar panels, or how small the UK’s battery capacity currently is ? Do they realise, as one told me, that we will need to carpet 75,000 acres of the country in solar farms to reach our current energy needs? They suspect not.

Instead, the Scrutiny Group want to focus on practical measures to reduce energy bills in the here and now. Primarily, that means backing fracking. They argue it would lower prices and provide just as much of an economic boost as any ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ – just look what the shale gas industry has done for the United States.

But the last manifesto announced a moratorium on the policy, not so much for environmental reasons, but because it was so unpopular in swathes of the North and Midlands. Since a few Net Zero Scrutiny Group supporters have constituencies in the South and East, their fondness for fracking raises an obvious question. Isn’t what they are doing the same as a Northern MP calling for HS2, or for more house-building near London? A few Scrutiny Group members sheepishly acknowledged this hypocrisy.

Nevertheless, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group do raise a valuable point: why, at a time when energy bills are tripling, are Conservatives so willing to sign up to an agenda that many suspect will only hike them further? According to Skidmore, there is no surprise: green policies only account for 8% of energy bills, and these policies will encourage the growth and innovation that will make costs cheaper in the long-term. And lower taxes, smaller government, motherhood, and apple pie will also soon follow in their wake.

But there is another reason why MPs are so keen to go green. One MP compared the hold of the CEN over the parliamentary party to the Sparrows from Game of Thrones – religious zealots whose commitment to their mission outweighs any practical considerations, and who keep the average MP in a state of servile terror. Or so I’m told, since I’m likely the only person working in politics not to have seen the popular breasts and dragons-based drama.

It has been noted that CEN and their supporters are very well-connected in Downing Street. Moreover, of the 2019 intake who have written for ConservativeHome about Net Zero over the last two years, one has then been made a PPS – Virgina Crosbie, the MP for Ynys Môn. Then again, another has defected to the Labour Party, so it’s not too useful a metric.

Notwithstanding that, Net Zero is clearly in fashion in Downing Street. Although the crisis in Ukraine may have provided an opportunity to look again at fracking and the North Sea, and to carve out an energy strategy that gives more of a role to nuclear than it would have done six months ago, there is a reason why the Net Zero Scrutiny Group’s membership includes serial rebels such as Steve Baker and Rob Halfon. Their counterparts in the Support Group may not be the stooges of the Whips that the Scrutin-eers claim (and which Skidmore vehemently denies), but they are not serials rebels, or likely to offend bien pensant opinion. In other words, no energy crisis can dampen the reflexive Tory instinct to climb the greasy pole. Disraeli would be proud.

‘The Treasury is taking with one hand to give away with the other’. Think tanks react to the Spring Statement

23 Mar

Centre for Policy Studies

Raising National Insurance thresholds to match Income Tax welcome

“The Centre for Policy Studies warmly welcomed the Chancellor’s landmark decision to raise National Insurance thresholds to the same level as income tax, in response to the cost of living crisis.

“This policy, the Universal Working Income, was suggested by the Centre for Policy Studies in its landmark 2018 paper Make Work Pay, and was adopted by the Conservatives in their 2019 manifesto. At the time, we calculated it would take 2.4 million people out of tax altogether.

“The CPS had recently argued that increasing NI thresholds was the best way to offset the effects of the Government’s increase in National Insurance for those on low and average incomes – but welcomed the Chancellor’s decision to go much further.”

Adam Smith Institute

Chancellor is ‘gas-lighting’ voters over his tax plans

“The big announcement today will undoubtedly be the 1p cut to the basic rate of income tax. Such a cut won’t go into effect until 2024 and Brits need relief now. It’s a cynical ploy to cut tax just in time for the next election, while at the same time hiking tax on workers through National Insurance. In terms of intergenerational inequality, lowering income tax while increasing NIC shifts the tax burden from the old to the young.

“In an ideal world, the Chancellor would have scrapped the planned National Insurance Contribution rise, although it is encouraging to see that he plans to raise the NIC threshold in line with income tax thresholds.”

TaxPayers’ Alliance

The Treasury is taking with one hand to give away with the other.

“Cutting income tax down the line will be easily offset by the upcoming national insurance hike and freezing income tax thresholds, leaving taxpayers out of pocket overall. If the government wants to give taxpayers and businesses a respite from rises, they’d do well to simply scrap the health and social care levy.”

“The alignment of income tax and national insurance is a welcome step to simplifying the tax system. The chancellor should take this chance to combine the two into a single income tax and offer a really radical reform of the tax code.”

Centre for Social Justice

The reality is this cost of living crisis is just getting started

“Today we needed to see a strategy for those struggling the most. Universal Credit remains the best weapon in Government’s arsenal to get support directly to those who will be worst hit by the spike in energy prices, while also helping claimants into work.

“Building on the profoundly welcome cut to the taper rate at the Autumn Budget, the Government should further harness the flexibility within UC to help those furthest from the labour market by investing more in the system in response to rising energy costs and the wider cost of living.”

Bright Blue

Since the Chancellor seems to be allergic to welfare, he is hamstringing himself by refusing to do what would help best

“This is the confused Chancellor. He is desperate to burnish his Hayekian credentials to his colleagues, but he has been consistently Keynesian in his response to two major crises during his short tenure, using a mixture of public spending and now tax cuts to stimulate the economy through troubled times. Public debt, tax levels and inflation will remain historically very high for the foreseeable future, much higher than what fiscally hawkish economists would advise.

The fairest way of helping households struggling with a range of costs, especially fuel and energy, is through broad subsidies such as Universal Credit or broad taxes such as VAT, National insurance or Income Tax.”

Policy Exchange

It is not surprising that the Chancellor is trying to hold on to fiscal rules

“Indeed, the Chancellor’s focus on security in this Spring Statement reveals the tension at the heart of a new culture of enterprise in these difficult economic times. In the long-term, it is the creative destruction, innovation and churn that create a resilient economy. But in the short-term, you need resilient businesses who aren’t laden with debt service costs or input squeezes to make those long-term investments. You need consumer confidence, protected by Government spending in difficult times, to power private business.

“In this Statement, the Chancellor is making the judgement that, ultimately, a moderate intervention will suffice for now, to get through the current challenges, and that too much protection, too much ‘security’ will ultimately cover up weaknesses and hamper the dynamic economy the Chancellor is so eager to create. This is perhaps the biggest call of all, and we should all hope he is right.”

Institute of Economic Affairs

This was a mitigation mini-Budget, not a radical one

“The reduction in fuel duty will make a small difference to households. The decision to raise the National Insurance threshold means workers on an average wage will see their contributions fall, despite the planned 2.5 percentage point rise going ahead. The pledge to reduce the basic rate of income tax is welcome.

“But the UK will spend £83bn on debt interest this year – almost double our entire defence budget. The Chancellor will not achieve economic ‘security’ without a commitment to drastically bringing down our tax bill and reducing government spending, which has spiralled out of control. Only then will he boost our anaemic growth forecasts.”

Onward

Time is running out if the Chancellor wants his economic plan to be felt before the next election

“Today’s statement was a firefighter’s statement. The Chancellor has warned about inflation since he entered the Treasury and today his warnings were realised. The 5p cut to fuel duty and the rising threshold for National Insurance contributions offer considerable protection against spiralling inflation, especially for those on the lowest incomes – and, from 2024, he ensured that voters will keep an extra penny from every pound they earn.

“Critics will say he should have scrapped the planned National Insurance rise. But doing so would have meant finding £12 billion elsewhere for the NHS and social care, or explaining to voters why they must wait months for operations in the run up to a general election. Ultimately this left him with no easy choices.

“But while voters recognise that the Chancellor is fighting fires on all fronts, he cannot lose sight of why the Government was elected back in 2019 – to level up opportunity across the UK. Today’s statement had positive language on capital investment, R&D and apprenticeships, but scant detail and no decisions until the Autumn.”

Conservative Environment Network

Today’s Spring Statement will help people cope with rising household bills 

“Scrapping VAT for insulation will help people upgrade their homes and reduce their energy bills. This quick and simple tax cut will help families with soaring gas prices. The Chancellor should also look to expand existing energy efficiency schemes to help fuel poor households insulate their homes.

In the short term, a fuel duty cut will soften the blow of rocketing oil prices, helping motorists and cutting the cost of transporting goods across the country. But the crisis underlines the need urgently review the UK’s road taxes.

As people switch to electric vehicles, which will reduce the UK’s dependence on expensive oil imports, road taxes like fuel duty will need to be replaced. This is an opportunity to deliver a fairer deal for motorists and cut congestion while raising revenue for excellent public services.”

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Chancellor has abandoned many to the threat of destitution, not economic security

“The Chancellor has acted recklessly in pressing ahead with a second real-terms cut to benefits in six months, while prioritising people on middle and higher incomes.

“Changes to National Insurance won’t help those who aren’t working or can’t work due to disability, illness or caring responsibilities, and exposes them to an increased risk of becoming destitute. This means they will face regularly going without absolute essentials such as food, energy and basic hygiene products.

“We can’t build a strong or secure economy by weakening the incomes of the poorest. With benefits reaching their lowest level in real terms since 1985, the Chancellor had ample opportunity with his increased headroom to uprate them in line with inflation to protect those most at risk.”

Institute for Fiscal Studies

If he wants to be remembered as a tax reforming chancellor, so far he is headed in the wrong direction

“There are two paradoxes at the heart of today’s statement. The Chancellor has managed to announce tax cuts without reducing the planned tax take from previous plans. And by saying nothing about spending, he is reducing the real-terms generosity of his plans for spending on public services. That’s what inflation does.

“The cuts to income tax and National Insurance are effectively paid for by increasing revenues as a result of fiscal drag. The freezing of the income tax personal allowance and higher rate threshold turn out to be much bigger tax rises than first intended. As a result, almost all workers will be paying more tax on their earnings in 2025 than they would have been paying without this parliament’s reforms to income tax and NICs, despite the tax cutting measures announced today.

“And by keeping to previously announced cash plans for public spending Mr Sunak is being considerably less generous to public services than he intended when he set out his spending plans in the Autumn.”

Siobhan Baillie: Reviving our wetlands will be crucial to hitting the UK’s Net Zero commitment

4 Mar

Siobhan Baillie is MP for Stroud and a former family law solicitor.

The increasingly spirited debate about how the UK should meet its environmental targets is really welcome in my view. We need practical solutions that are understood by all, think carefully about costs to families, involve as many people as possible and create new jobs along the way.

I have therefore been looking at our natural assists and expertise that we can already boast, which is genuinely world-leading.

The latest IPCC report highlights that Britain will face more frequent flooding, and the erosion of our coastline, as a result of climate change. Fortunately, we have a natural solution to help: wetlands.

Wetlands store carbon, alleviate flooding, provide vital habitats for wildlife, clean our water and offer beautiful spaces for recreation and health.

These benefits have an economic value that is not yet properly accounted for by governments or markets. Nature has historically been seen as a free resource to plunder rather than an asset to be managed and enhanced. This means that while wetlands offer solutions to many of the country’s environmental, safety and health challenges, they are often overlooked.

The review into the economics of biodiversity, led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta and commissioned by HM Treasury, was clear that we need to change how we think, act, and measure economic success to protect and enhance our prosperity and the natural world. Wetlands could be a leading example of how to incorporate natural capital into the Treasury’s thinking and establish markets for the services these natural assets provide.

In the UK, we have 175 Ramsar sites – which are wetlands of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention. Unfortunately, despite this lead, we have still lost 90 per cent of our wetland habitats in the last century.

This, and the potential benefits outlined above, is why I established the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Wetlands with the Wildfowl and Wetlands team who are headquartered in my constituency. We are calling for the restoration of 100,000 hectares of wetland habitat as a key part of our parliamentary mission.

Increased wetland areas can improve our resilience to the impacts of climate change and help us reach Net Zero. They are vital carbon sinks. Saltmarsh, a coastal wetland, absorbs carbon at two to four times the rate of tropical rainforests.

Research suggests that a more capricious climate could cost the UK up to 1.5 per cent of GDP per annum by 2045 without further adaptation measures. Saltmarsh, in particular, is an important defence for low-lying coastal areas at risk from rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges caused by climate change. By targeting coastal habitat creation in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise, we can create a natural flood defence for farms, homes and businesses.

Wetlands can also help us mitigate inland flooding by regulating the movement of water through our landscapes. By re-wiggling rivers, restoring floodplains, and reintroducing beavers, we can reduce flood peaks and protect communities downstream from flooding. They can also improve the health of our rivers and seas by filtering out pollutants like nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticide, and sediment from runoff and sewage effluent.

Environment Agency analysis shows that achieving the Government’s target for 75 per cent of rivers to achieve ‘good status’ would generate benefits of around £22.5 billion for costs of £17.5 billion.

Our wetlands are also home to around a tenth of British wildlife despite covering just three per cent of land area. Sadly, this incredible biodiversity is at risk, with over ten per cent of our freshwater and wetland species threatened with extinction. Restoring our wetlands will be critical to achieving our legally binding target to halt species decline by 2030.

I am a believer in the idea of a ‘Natural Health Service’, with research from Natural England showing we could save an estimated £2.1 billion in health costs each year if everyone in England had good access to the natural environment.

Communities value their local wetlands for recreation and respite, from canals, rivers and lakes to attenuation ponds and rain gardens. Research shows that just ten minutes of exposure to urban wetlands may be enough to produce improvements in mood, with results especially pronounced in people who self-report elevated stress.

As I set out in my recent essay for the Conservative Environment Network, there are three ways we can help restore wetlands.

Firstly, we need to include the carbon removals by our wetland habitats like saltmarsh in our greenhouse gas inventory, just as we do for woodland and peatland. This will encourage the protection and restoration of saltmarsh to reach Net Zero by 2050, and unlock private funding for wetlands to complement public investment. A report commissioned by the Natural Capital Committee found that saltmarsh creation had a benefit-cost ratio of between two- and three-to-one.

Secondly, we need to provide private actors with a market framework to invest in wetland creation. The taxpayer must not face all costs associated with saving the planet, but equally, the market needs incentivising.

The Government has an ambitious new target to raise at least £500 million in private finance to support nature’s recovery every year by 2027 in England, rising to more than £1 billion by 2030. Yet while we have an established carbon offsetting market for woodland and peatland, we have not for saltmarsh.

We need to establish a saltmarsh carbon code to plug this gap so that saltmarsh carbon has a route to market. The Government could also commission the development of credits for other benefits delivered by saltmarsh creation, such as for biodiversity and natural flood management.

Finally, the Treasury should include natural capital within the mandate of the UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) by setting a third objective for the bank to contribute toward our target to halt species decline by 2030. This would support the two objectives (regional economic growth and Net Zero) and take forward the key principle in Professor Dasgupta’s review that nature must not be left off the balance sheet.

Achieving our environmental goals and mitigating the impacts of climate change in a way that creates jobs and economic value will be essential to our future prosperity and resilience. To achieve this, we need a new conversation and a new look at multi-benefit solutions like wetlands.

We are naturally a wet, boggy island teeming with wildlife. We can take action to start drawing on these natural gifts to restore our rich inheritance and power economic growth.

This article is an edited version of the author’s article in Green Albion, a collection of essays published by the Conservative Environmental Network.

Mark Jenkinson: Electric cars have challenges, but these are not insurmountable. We should be optimistic about their potential.

20 Aug

Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.

I am a proud user of an electric car and a passionate advocate for the mass take-up of electric vehicles (EVs) – so much so that I recently became an EV champion for the Conservative Environment Network.

There has, however, recently been a lot more attention in the media on the negatives of EVs than the positives. I’m the first to say that more needs to be done to make them an affordable and practical choice for my constituents, but we can’t forget how much progress we are already making or lose sight of this technology’s huge potential.

The reason why I’m so supportive of EVs is because they can offer huge benefits to our health by reducing air and noise pollution, particularly in congested towns and cities. They can benefit our wallets via cheaper fuel and maintenance costs, and they are critical for net zero given transport is the highest emitting sector. Car companies like Tesla have also shown that EVs can be high-performance vehicles and provide a great driving experience.

We’re near the start of this transition, though, so there are still issues to resolve. The main ones are currently infrastructure, affordability and sustainability.

The UK has recently reached a milestone of 25,000 public chargers across the country, expanding the network by 220 per cent between 2016 and 2020. Earlier this year, the number of electric vehicle charge point sites surpassed the number of petrol stations for the first time.

This is of course great news for EV users like myself, but we need to go further and faster in order to provide the charging infrastructure for the expected increase in EVs on our roads in the years ahead. The lack of charge points then understandably leads to some people having range anxiety, despite the average EV having a range of 193 miles.

I was pleased to see the recent commitment from government to mandate the installation of charge points for all new houses and offices, but we won’t see the results of this for several years and it still leaves the on-street public network wanting.

That’s why I’ve been campaigning for businesses in my constituency of Workington to take advantage of government funding and install charge points at places of work. I’m also calling on ministers to make sure we have sufficient low-carbon electricity generation and resilient power grids for when people want to charge up.

Coming in at number three on the list of reasons why people are hesitant to buy an EV is the cost. We’ve seen an incredible fall in the cost of lithium-ion batteries in recent years – down 97 per cent in three decades – but at the moment, the upfront cost of a new electric car is still more expensive than a new petrol or diesel car, and the second-hand market is in its infancy.

This prices out a lot of people, particularly lower income families. That’s why government policies like the plug-in car grant to help people with the upfront cost, and company car tax breaks to create more fleet vehicles for the second hand market, are so important.

The upfront cost comparison doesn’t, however, take into account the lower fuel and maintenance costs of an EV or the longer lifespan that comes with a battery-powered car. Costs will also come down over time, as they do with most technologies as they scale up, particularly since the car industry is embracing EVs.

They can see that the market is moving towards electric – with both the US and the EU recently setting targets for electric vehicle uptake. Almost every week there are new voluntary commitments from car companies to expand their selection of electric models – Alfa Romeo, Scoda and Citroen to name a few. As manufacturers expand their selection of EVs there will be an expansion of the second-hand car market, which will be key to making EVs affordable for everyone.

Let’s also not forget that it’s demand from consumers that is driving this innovation. Ten percent of car sales in the UK are now electric and this is only going to continue as we near 2030. This will increase exponentially if we address the challenges that are still holding back the general public.

Beyond the immediate challenges of EV take up, there is the important matter of battery sustainability. Once an electric battery reaches the end of its life it can easily become a source of pollution.

They contain metals like cobalt and nickel, which are in short supply and could be reused if more and better recycling facilities were available. With more recycling plants we could harness this supply, reducing our dependence on importing resources and boosting our economy at the same time.

The recent media pieces make some valid points and raise some important challenges that the government needs to address. But the challenges are not insurmountable and we must not temper our ambition. By putting fairness at the heart of its policies, government can make electric cars a realistic option for every family and business.

Anna Firth and Megan Trethewey: Greening your campaign – some ideas for council candidates

19 Feb

Cllr Anna Firth is a Sevenoaks councillor, on the Board of the Conservative Environment Network. She contested Canterbury at the 2019 General Election. Megan Trethewey is head of programmes at the Conservative Environment Network having previously worked as a Parliamentary Researcher in Westminster.  

While much about the upcoming local elections will be different, one of the core issues that remains the same and consistently polls as a priority for voters is the environment. Two thirds of Britons now believe that climate change is as serious as coronavirus, according to recent Ipsos Mori polling. As the party of the environment, capturing the “green vote” should be a key target in the upcoming 2021 council elections.

Before the pandemic, the UK was decarbonising at a faster rate, whilst growing our economy faster, than any other G7 nation. From Margaret Thatcher’s seminal speech at the UN, the first world leader to put climate change on the international stage, to Theresa May under whose leadership the UK was the first major economy to adopt a net zero emissions target, and Boris Johnson’s 10 Point Plan for a green industrial revolution, Conservatives have an environmental record to be proud of.

Many Councils have already committed to net zero carbon targets by 2030 and many are working extremely hard to reduce their carbon footprint. In Sevenoaks, for example, we have moved away from landfill, replaced some diesel vehicles with electric, installed electric charging points in car parks, and introduced planning standards to ensure new homes have a minimal impact on the environment.

Yet we know there so much more to be done, not just to reach net zero, but to protect and restore the natural environment. Councillors have a key role to play so here are some of our top tips for greening your campaign this May.

Net zero motions or climate emergencies – what’s next? Plan and evidence

With 2030 under nine years away, it’s important to have a clear plan to deliver your net zero pledge this May. That doesn’t mean a fully mapped out pathway, since private sector innovation leading to new green technologies, will almost certainly lead the way but, rather, a clear plan to show that your targets are more than just virtue-signalling. Setting short term goals and consulting relevant groups, like Gloucestershire County Council, who have established a Youth Climate Panel, is a good start.

That plan should also be based on evidence as much as possible – don’t let opposition parties back you into a corner with unrealistic commitments. The UK adopted a 2050 net zero target on the advice of the independent Climate Change Committee. The West Midlands Combined Authority set their target to reach net zero by 2041 after commissioning scientific research from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change.

Trees, glorious trees, and other green infrastructure

Trees are infinitely popular, and, when planted in the right place, offer multiple benefits from sequestering carbon, to providing habitats, and even slowing the flow of floodwater. Tree planting is also a great PR opportunity, perfect for Facebook and digital campaigning. For example, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council has plans to plant 30 community orchards.

Also beyond trees, as there is more green space locked up in our gardens than in all our national parks combined, you may wish to campaign for more “green infrastructure” to help local wildlife – meaning hedges, wildlife, “planting for pollinators”, “bird and bat feeders”, “green walls” etc. Nature is more likely to thrive where it has more space to roam, so try as much as possible to connect wildlife hotspots such as parks and woods with strips of greenery. This can form part of England’s ‘Nature Recovery Network’ which is being introduced through the Environment Bill. Solihull Borough Council introduced a new ‘Wildlife Ways’ scheme to plant 64 football pitches of wildflower seeding.

Cleaning up local air and protecting little lungs

Air pollution is estimated to contribute to up to 36,000 premature deaths and cost the NHS over £150 million each year. To safeguard children, who are particularly susceptible from the worst impacts of air pollution outside where they study and play, talk to your local head teachers about implementing school street schemes – timed road closures – in appropriate areas. Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s schemes have been popular after they were implemented following calls for expressions of interest.

Improving local active travel infrastructure can also help reduce traffic pollution, and should always be about creating more choice for people rather than less. Ask your local residents – where do they need a pavement widened, a zebra crossing introduced, or a safer cycle path built? Temporary planters or bollards can save you money and let you trial something before making it permanent. More people are getting out on their bikes, and councils can support them to do so safely. The government has made it clear they will be providing more cash for this so start the work talking to communities now. Schemes won’t last if they’re imposed on communities without proper consultation, so early engagement with residents is essential.

Start at home with council buildings and tap into local knowledge

Look at the environmental footprint of your council’s estate including schools, fire stations, libraries, and main office buildings. Are they energy efficient? How is office waste collected? How do your employees and children, for example, travel to school/work? Maybe ask council staff what green changes they would like to see and how you can support them to be more environmentally friendly. Air source heat pumps, solar panels, energy efficient boiler systems all help maximise green energy consumption and significantly reduce harmful outputs.

Right across the country there are British businesses leading and innovating in clean technologies, and charities pioneering new initiatives, that can help you to achieve your environmental goals. Find them and tap into that knowledge base – you may just have a world leading green business right under your nose that you could visit, interview, and spot-light on social media.

Don’t be afraid to be an eco-Tory

You can be an environmentalist and a conservative, look no further than the Prime Minister for a case in point. Since 2010, Conservative governments have shown that you can grow the economy and tackle climate change. You can be pro-business and pro-environment. Forward-looking councils and councillors share the Prime Minister’s vision for a Green Industrial Revolution that will invest in British businesses, create a net zero economy, and support thousands of green jobs across the country.

So don’t be afraid to be an eco-Tory this May. Instead, make it a cornerstone of your campaign and sign up to the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) to meet fellow green conservatives, learn more from other local environmental leaders, and receive key green election briefings.

Kirsty Finlayson: The Government is making good progress on green issues, but there is much more to be done

4 Jan

Kirsty Finlayson is Director of Communications for the British Conservation Alliance, which launches today. She is a solicitor and has previously stood as a Conservative candidate in the 2017 General Election and the 2019 European Election.

My first school, in rural North Nottinghamshire, had a beaver as its mascot. Despite understanding the symbolism – valuing hard work and aspiring to be “as busy as a beaver” – my four-year-old self was perplexed at never having seen the rodent, despite living on the River Trent.

Nevertheless, living in the countryside close to Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest inspired a lifelong love of nature. Studies have shown that a child who experiences nature before the age of 12 years old is more likely to be motivated to protect the environment in adulthood.

Yet over 90 per cent of the UK population will be city dwellers over the next decade.

With Brexit being the focus in 2019, the word “wildlife” was mentioned just once in our Party’s Manifesto. There were, however, several encouraging commitments to conservation, including pledges to tackle deforestation, introduce a new £500 million maritime preservation programme, ensure farmers farm in a way that protects and enhances our natural environment, plant an additional 75,000 acres of trees a year by the end of the next Parliament, and create new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Environment Bill reintroduced in January 2020 has helped re-establish conservation as a Conservative cause. It introduced a mandatory requirement for “biodiversity net gain” during planning, an essential addition to planning rules, given the “requirement” for 300,000 new homes each year.

The Bill went some way to improving long-term conservation with the creation of “conservation covenants”, which allow a landowner and “responsible body” (such as a conservation charity or public body) to fulfil conservation objectives. In the past, conservation obligations were only personal agreements which failed to bind successors in title; conservation bodies had to acquire the freehold of land to secure long term conservation. Now, conservation covenants – as legal commitments – can ensure more permanent preservation of our previous wildlife.

The Bill also introduced a “Duty to Consult”, giving the public an opportunity to understand why an urban tree is being felled and to express their concerns, whilst also strengthening the Forestry Commission’s power to clamp down on illegal tree felling across England – which will be welcomed by right and left wing tree huggers alike.

The improvements in air quality that are brought about by more vegetation are clear; but if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that the benefit of outdoor greenery is not just precious, it is crucial; trees not only help clean and cool the air, but improve people’s mental and physical health too.

A recent National Trust survey revealed that 80 per cent of the happiest people in the UK have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40 per cent of the unhappiest. The opportunity to enjoy nature can no longer be a luxury enjoyed by privileged garden owners. A pandemic poll by the RSPB showed that 84 per cent of people in England support the suggestion that the Government should increase the number of accessible nature-rich areas in the UK as part of our pandemic recovery. Links to nature are also associated with far-reaching positive effects on the brain. Studies have shown that a window with a view of green space can reduce the crime rate by as much as 50 per cent.

Returning to the busy beaver, the water flow control that natural habitats provide is essential for our flood defences. With the number of extreme wet days in the UK increasing and costing the UK economy around £2.2 billion a year and causing stress and hardship for homeowners, as well as unprecedented challenges for businesses, councils and the insurance industry, the beaver is just one example of a self-sufficient water management resource.

In 2015, beavers were reintroduced to the countryside in Devon; the Devon Wildlife Trust found that the beavers’ effects on the surrounding area was profound. They not only reduced flooding through dam-building, but they caused plant life to flourish (boosting other types of wildlife), held water in dry periods which prevented sediment and inorganic fertilisers from being washed from farmland, and even reduced erosion and improved water quality. Since 2017, 13 beaver licenses have been issued by the Natural England, most recently to the rewilding project at Knepp in Sussex.

Despite the positives to be drawn by the Environment Bill, however, there is still so much more that individual local activists and large lobbying groups can campaign on.

The Government has set out how developers should protect much-loved British wildlife, but we must do the same on agricultural land, encouraging areas of re-wilding which have a positive impact on both land use and surrounding nature. This does not need to come at the expense of farmers and their livelihoods.

There are huge opportunities to rethink how farmland is managed with the overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers currently benefit from subsidies such as Agricultural Property Relief. Whilst conservation covenants are a start, why not give farmers a tax benefit for re-wilding? Let’s give businesses economic incentives for wilding land, which can provide long-term public benefit through physical activity and education. Brexit has afforded us the opportunity to view farming and conservation as mutually compatible; improving the quality of our land, which includes reversing land degradation, will also boost our nation’s food production in the long term.

Post-Brexit, we must take the lead in environmental legislation; previously, it took EU subsidies to change soil quality. With a relatively small land mass, we cannot afford to be complacent. The Government has supported the ban on pesticides to protect bee pollination, but has yet to oppose the herbicide glyphosate. Some local authorities such as in North Somerset, Bristol, and Lewes have decided not to wait for Government intervention, and have already imposed restrictions on the herbicide, which various studies have labelled as having serious health implications.

And we must not ignore international cooperation in the wake of Covid-19. Whilst the UK government has implemented a far-reaching furlough scheme, many of the world’s inhabitants do not have such government support, leaving them vulnerable to exploit natural resources (primarily precious forests and oceans) to survive. In the Global South, this is likely to have a devastating long-term impact on the natural world. The Prime Minister’s commitment to cooperate internationally in order to introduce wildlife corridors, cut deforestation and protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans will be welcome.

Damian Green: We have a chance to show the world what Conservative environmental leadership looks like

5 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

As we approach the depressing depths of the Covid winter, let’s cheer ourselves up about one of the other big global challenges. It’s been a good couple of months for global action on climate change as some of the biggest emitting countries set net zero targets.

China started off the chain with a surprise commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2060. In the last few weeks, EU governments agreed to make their 2050 net zero target legally binding, while Japan and South Korea committed to a 2050 net zero deadline. And finally it looks possible that the US will also join the net zero club.

Heading into next year’s UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow, the British presidency has momentum, which it must now capitalise on.

In the past month, the UK has also made good progress on its domestic climate policies, with a new £2bn Green Homes Grant for households to insulate homes and a commitment to quadruple the UK’s offshore wind capacity. In his upcoming net zero speech later this month, the Prime Minister should show his commitment to climate leadership once again.

In particular he should announce two policy ideas from the One Nation Caucus’ ‘Building Back Greener’ paper, including an earlier 2030 phase-out date for new petrol and diesel car sales and a multi-year home retrofit scheme. Insulating Britain’s homes better than we do is profoundly unglamorous but amazingly effective.

A strong domestic record matters because it gives the UK credibility on the world stage when we try to persuade others to clean up their act. Crucially, we can provide an attractive example that other countries want to follow, by showing that ambitious emissions reductions can go hand in hand with economic growth. This is especially important at the moment as countries decide how to kickstart their economies after the Covid lockdowns.

There is one audience in particular where the UK’s record on clean growth can really resonate around the world: among conservatives. In many countries, conservatives have historically eschewed leadership on climate change. Sometimes they’ve been sceptical of the science of man-made climate change, or they’ve rejected what are perceived to be left-wing solutions. Sometimes they’ve been ignored or overlooked by the climate movement, who have often preferred to speak about climate in language that appeals more to the left.

Whatever the cause, the net result has been that climate is perceived as a left-wing issue. Yet this really shouldn’t be the case. There is no more conservative idea than intergenerational responsibility, and no more important application than climate change. The alleged trade-off between climate action and economic growth – if it ever existed – has been comprehensively shattered by the dramatic reductions in the costs of clean technologies and the proliferation of jobs in the booming clean energy industry.

We also shouldn’t forget that the first significant international climate change speech by a major global leader was delivered by a conservative – Margaret Thatcher – 31 years ago this month.

Conservatives are essential to solving climate change because they are in power across the world right now. They control the public investment, regulation, and taxation policies of many national economies, and so they have to be part of the solution. Some conservatives, like Norway’s or Germany’s, are already doing fantastic work on tackling climate change, and we should make common cause with them. Others such as the US and Australia have made some progress in recent years, particularly at state level, but still have a way to go.

Conservative Environment Network (CEN) research has revealed that a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from countries with conservative governments. On top of this, even where conservatives don’t control the national government, they form a sizable share of electorates, they sit in large numbers in legislatures, and they run many municipal and state governments. We can’t ignore this third of global emissions, any less than we can ignore the significant proportion of the global electorate with conservative values who need to be brought with us on climate change.

Conservatives in the UK now have to join up with our counterparts overseas. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a cross-party consensus on the need to tackle climate change since well before the Climate Change Act was passed nearly unanimously in 2008. During the past ten years of Conservative Governments we’ve enjoyed the fastest decarbonisation rate of any G20 economy and have established the world’s largest offshore wind sector. We now need to share these conservative success stories with our political allies, and embolden them to lead on climate change in their countries too.

I am delighted to be working alongside colleagues in CEN to reach out to conservative legislators in the US, Australia, Germany, Canada, France, and elsewhere to build a global centre-right alliance in favour of action on climate change that supports economic growth and job creation. I look forward to their international launch event on 9th November with the Alok Sharma, the COP President.

International climate leadership is the perfect role for global Britain in the 2020s, and the year-long countdown to the Glasgow summit has got off to a terrific start. With the UK at the forefront, I hope to see conservatives leading this next decade of decarbonisation.

Jo Gideon: Clean air is a basic need. Not a luxury

26 Sep

Jo Gideon is the Member of Parliament for Stoke on Trent Central

This year, the connection between our health and the environment has never been clearer. We have seen how wildlife trafficking and habitat loss are making animal-borne diseases like Covid-19 more likely. The cleaner air during the lockdown has also made us more cognizant of the harmful impact of traffic fumes. So it is timely that the Environment Bill is returning to Parliament soon, requiring the government to set targets for improving our environment, including the reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – the most harmful type of air pollution. But ambitious targets must be backed up by action to make it easier for people to choose cleaner forms of transport, such as electric cars or cycling.

Clean air should be seen as a basic need, not a luxury. In the UK, air pollution is the leading environmental risk to our health, and is responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths each year. Public Health England’s conservative estimate of the cost of air pollution to our NHS and social care system in 2017 was £42.88 million, of which £41.2 million was due to PM2.5. This noxious pollutant is made up of tiny particles from fuel, tyres, brake discs and road dust. In the latest World Health Organisation report, 30 towns and cities in the UK exceeded the recommended limits on fine particulate matter, including my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent.

The public wants to see politicians taking action to clean up our air. Polling commissioned by the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) shows that 68 per cent of people in the West Midlands support the creation of car-free zones outside of schools during pick-up and drop-off time, even if this makes the school run less convenient. A majority are also in favour of the government offering incentives for people to change to an electric vehicle, as well as strengthening air pollution laws and investing in walking and cycling.

Accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and active travel will be key to building back cleaner air after Covid-19. Earlier this year, the UK launched a consultation to bring forward the phase-out date for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035, and I would urge the government to be even more ambitious by setting the date for 2030 if feasible in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s advice. Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, with annual sales of new EVs expected to reach 200,000 by 2021, and in the most recent Budget I was pleased that the Chancellor extended the Plug-In Car Grant to help people with the purchase costs.

The mass adoption of electric vehicles will require a nationwide charge point network. A mixture of public grants and private partnerships have enabled some local authorities to install charge points, but uptake is far from universal. The government has made great strides in addressing this issue. Yet at the moment with just nine charging points in total – equating to one public charging point for every 268 local EVs – Stoke-on-Trent is one of the worst areas for EV charging in the country. There’s no shortage of ambition from our council to rectify this, provided they have central government support, however. That’s why I welcomed the £500 million funding announced in March to help the rollout of high-powered, open-access charge points.

The government is also supporting councils to create more walking and cycling infrastructure, with a £2 billion funding package and a new strategy for cycling and walking – setting an ambition for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030. The West Midlands is already seeing the benefits of this: the new Starley Network, funded in part by the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund, will join together 500 miles of cycle routes across the region. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have 18 miles of canal pathways which offer a unique opportunity for cycling routes.

And of course, underpinning all of this, must be a world-leading target to tackle the toxic PM2.5, committing in the Environment Bill to achieving the World Health Organisation’s current air quality standards. This would once again demonstrate the government’s commitment to having higher environmental standards than the European Union after Brexit. Achieving this standard – which is feasible according to the government’s own study – would also deliver annual health benefits of £6.8 billion.

As with our net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions, the UK would be the first major economy to make such a commitment, and it would complement our climate change target by encouraging the widespread uptake of electric forms of travel and heating.

Leaving the European Union presents us with a historic opportunity to create a healthier environment for ourselves and future generations. Let’s not waste it.