Could Theresa May be remembered for anything other than Brexit?

Theresa May smallLegacy is “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see” rapped one of America’s founding fathers on the day of his death, at least according to the musical Hamilton. Thoughts of legacy are likely to start rising up the UK political agenda over the coming weeks as the big question in Westminster becomes who will replace Theresa May? Candidates are already publicly throwing their hats into the ring, with interventions, speeches and candid pictures in kitchens aplenty. Some of these interventions have rightly identified climate and environment issues as vital to the future of the Conservative party. But will Theresa May be remembered for anything other than Brexit?

A possible answer to this question has come in the form of this month’s report from the Committee on Climate Change. The planned pathway to net zero emissions for the UK is particularly strong for the loopholes it closes. The report’s target includes all greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon; it hasn’t shied away from the hard-to-reach areas like international aviation and shipping; and it has avoided giving the government an easy way out by excluding the use of international offsets. Promisingly, the report also finds that getting to net zero costs no more than our current target of 80 per cent reductions and it is likely that innovations will mean it will cost even less and allow us to go even faster.

But this is just a report. To have effect, it needs to become law as quickly as possible, directing new action now to reach the goal. Green Alliance’s analysis has shown that waiting to take additional action until 2032, as the government has indicated it may do, will mean having to reduce emissions 72 per cent faster to hit the target than if we started today. And the policies needed to get us on target to net zero are possible now: an earlier ban on petrol and diesel vehicles; increased housing energy efficiency; more solar and onshore wind; improved industrial resource efficiency; and a programme of natural solutions like afforestation, habitat restoration and soil management for carbon sequestration.

It is very likely that the Conservatives will have a new leader by the time of the party conference in October. On 23 September, the UN’s secretary-general will convene a top level climate summit at the General Assembly. One of Theresa May’s last acts as a prime minister could be to stand up at this summit and announce that she has set in law actions to stop the UK contributing to climate change. How valuable it would be for our global reputation, which has suffered so much in recent years, if the prime minister were to say that the UK is setting the bar and wants to support the rest of the world to do so too.

This is a chance for her to cement a global, national and party legacy that goes beyond Brexit. As potential leadership candidates prepare for an election, they are shaping the conversation around what the future of Conservatism looks like. This year the environment is finally at the forefront of national politics. Recent polling has shown that people naming it as one of the top three issues facing the country jumped from 17 per cent in April to 24 per cent in May. The percentage is even higher for young people, who the Conservatives must appeal to if they are to get near a majority again.

Setting out the net zero pathway and putting it in law at the start of a leadership election campaign could help to reinforce candidates’ positive positioning on the issue and set environmental ambition at the heart of the party for years to come.

This is even more important when you recognise the number of critical moments for climate action over the next 18 months. The expected Energy White Paper will shape the UK’s energy system for the next decade while the Treasury’s spending review and the national infrastructure strategy are due in the autumn.

The spending review and national infrastructure strategy are particularly important for their wide scope. Transport and housing are the next big frontiers of climate action and the government departments responsible for them will need to step up. This will need significant investment from the Treasury and unstinting leadership from No10.

The UK has requested to host the next major UN climate conference, known as COP26, in November 2020. This COP will be the most important since Paris, as countries ratchet up their ambitions and set new targets. If we are given this opportunity, whoever is prime minister at the time should be ready to set the standard and showcase the UK’s transformational ambitions.

The UNFCCC has said we have twelve years to save the world. This means radical change by 2030. Even with radical change it will be years before the UK stops contributing to climate change. And it will be even later before the world could confirm it can keep global temperature rises to below 1.5°C. If Theresa May puts the target into law before the summer recess, she would be responsible for a global landmark as significant as the Climate Change Act was a decade ago. Her leadership may not survive to see the garden grow but she can certainly ensure that she is the one who plants the seeds.

[Image: Theresa May arriving at the Tallinn Digital Summit. Courtesy of EU2017EE Estonian presidency via Flickr

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