Why aren’t Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt talking about the environment?
Last week, Green Conservatism came of age. The Conservative Environment Network launched a manifesto, supported by 41 MPs including senior backbenchers and members of newer intakes. This is significant because, at this time, it seems that parliament agrees on very little. But it is also significant as it is bursting with solutions to the environmental crisis and is a positive statement of intent on what can and must be done to preserve and restore our planet for future generations.
The manifesto rightly identifies the promised Environment Bill as one of the key vehicles for change, pledging support for binding legal targets for urgent nature recovery in England and for a new, world-leading, independent environmental watchdog to hold government to account on its environmental obligations.
It also recognises the global leadership opportunity on the environment, with four major international summits on climate, biodiversity, sustainable development and oceans taking place in the 2020 ‘super year’, along with the 75th anniversary of the UN General Assembly.
Difficult to trust politics if it doesn’t take the environment seriously
At the manifesto launch Environment Secretary Michael Gove urged Conservatives to use their environmental record in government as a spur to greater action: “There is no bigger issue than making sure we leave our country and our planet in a fit state for the next generation.” Chelmsford MP Vicky Ford argued that it would be difficult to restore trust in politics without taking the environment seriously. Middlesbrough South MP Simon Clarke stressed the need for an urgent response from government.
This positive green agenda has been embraced warmly by many business groups who welcome the investment certainty and level playing field that a clear regulatory framework brings.
Action on environmental issues is also increasingly supported by the public. The Issues Index published by Ipsos MORI on 1 July found that concern about the environment is still at record levels among the public. Over 12,000 people from all over the UK attended the largest ever environmental lobby of Parliament on 26th June to talk to their MPs about their concerns and urge them to act.
And there is cross-party support. In May, Parliament unanimously declared a climate and environment emergency and called on the government to act. While party spokespeople inevitably trade blows on their respective commitments, this very much feels as part of a race to the top and a healthy competition to be the greenest party.
No reflection of the urgency in the leadership race
It’s difficult to fathom therefore why none of this recognition and urgency has featured strongly in the Conservative leadership race, especially as other issues lack the same level of political opportunity as well as support from across all sectors of society. If ever there was a strong contender for the post-Brexit ‘taking back control’ to do list, environmental action is it.
In a leadership race where both candidates are seriously entertaining the prospect of no deal and all that entails, there is a serious risk that this could precipitate the UK reclaiming its unwelcome mantle as the ‘dirty man of Europe’. The obvious lack of focus and clarity on what either candidate would do to seize the environmental agenda feeds unwelcome uncertainty. More significantly, it could mean that the pace of policy change does not match the urgency required to address the environmental crisis. As Bill McKibben says winning slowly is the same as losing when it comes to dealing with crises such as climate change.
To counter this, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson should do three things:
First, they must commit now to an ambitious Environment Bill in their first legislative programme, with a bill introduced to Parliament this autumn. Then they should ensure government spending matches the need to restore and protect nature. Finally, and at the earliest opportunity, they need to draw up a plan for 2020 that positions the UK as an international leading light of thought and action on the environment.