Last Friday tens thousands of students from over 40 schools across the country - including some in my constituency - went on “strike” to demand more action on climate change. No one wants to see children skipping school on a regular basis, but for a moment these determined young people managed to drag our attention away from the day to day wranglings over Brexit and onto the greatest existential threat of our age.
It should not surprise us that young people are passionate about the state of the planet they will inherit - and while there is still much more to do, in the UK we have a climate change record to be proud of. We should be talking about that, and those who have responded to the strikes with negativity have slightly missed the point - this is the defining issue of our time, and how we respond to it will have a huge impact on their future.
I was delighted to talk to around 30 young people outside my constituency office on Friday about why they were striking that day. They brought with them a list of questions and demands which were a salutary reminder that we must be better at telling people of the many good things that are happening to tackle climate change. I was able to tell them that the UK will be one of the first countries to phase out coal fired generation by 2025, and more than 50% of UK electricity came from low-carbon sources in 2018. They demanded that the UK should be an advocate for the Paris Agreement. In fact, we were the first developed economy to pass a Climate Change Act to create a legal commitment to reduce our emissions, and since then we’ve reduced our carbon emissions faster than any other G7 country. We are a leading country in living up to the Paris Agreement.
The students want us to protect biodiversity by preserving our habitats and wildlife. This Government introduced the Blue Belt programme which has already seen an area of ocean the size of India protected, and our Environment Secretary has called for an even more ambitious target of 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030. My CEN colleagues, including Zac Goldsmith and Rebecca Pow, are also working on conservation with the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference and the APPG for Ancient Woodlands respectively, as Rebecca’s last CEN article outlined in more detail. The students were concerned about our agricultural system, and the new Agriculture Bill will pay farmers for vital public goods protecting our natural environment. They want to avoid unnecessary waste by maximising reuse and recycling, which is why we introduced our Waste Strategy focused on promoting a circular economy, and just last week launched a consultation on a Deposit Return System for plastic bottles.
I could go on, but the point is that these are all policies we should be talking more about and what we should be highlighting in our response to the school strike. Polling shows that climate change is one of the main issues that young people want to hear more about from politicians. So tackling climate change is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also a vote winner, particularly amongst younger voters who turned out at the last election in numbers last seen 25 years ago. They’re engaging with politics in new ways through social media, and in the past few years especially it’s rare if a school visit in my patch doesn’t entail some questions and discussion about the environment or Blue Planet II.
All of this positivity doesn’t mean that I’m complacent, I know that there is much more to do. I’ve been working with CEN and my colleagues to call for a net zero emissions target, and I hope we will see that the Committee on Climate Change advice in May supports this too. I want to see our Blue Belt programme followed through, with protections in the South Sandwich Islands for the incredible species there. We’ve got legislation in the House for Agriculture, the Environment and Fisheries which I’m contributing to and following closely. However, politics is a team sport, we need the support of Ministers, officials, civil society, NGOs and more to make all of this happen.
If these strikes raise awareness about how important this is, and just how serious the situation is, then I think they’re a good thing. I share the passion these young people have for tackling climate change and protecting our natural world. It’s an existential matter about whether we are going to survive on this planet, and while the UK can be proud to be a world leader, there is still more to do. That is how we should be responding to the strikes and talking to young people about this government’s record on climate change.