Alex Chalk: Targeting 'net zero' emissions can unite Britain around a new economic mission

By Alex Chalk MP

By Alex Chalk MP

Climate change is not some theoretical future possibility – it is a present reality. 

 The five warmest years in recorded history have been since 2010. Easter Monday was the hottest on record. This January, Australia experienced its warmest month ever, causing power outages after fuses overheated. Last year wildfires broke out north of the Arctic Circle.

We can choose to dismiss these events as a coincidence. We can ignore the fact that they have taken place alongside soaring levels of greenhouse gases. Or we can listen to the overwhelming majority of climate science which concludes that the evidence of humankind’s influence on the climate is now unanswerable.

Despite what you may have heard, the UK is taking action to tackle the existential threat of climate change, and it is right to recognise the progress we’ve already made. Since 1990, we have cut our emissions by 42 per cent while our economy has grown by two thirds. This means that we have, on a per-capita basis, reduced emissions faster while also growing our economy more than any other G7 nation. Last year saw a record amount of UK power generated from renewable sources – with over 30 per cent coming from renewables, and over 50 per cent from low carbon sources overall.

However, despite this strong track record, there is still much more work to do if we’re to keep control of our climate. Our current trajectory sets us on course for an 80 per cent reduction in our emissions by 2050 on 1990 levels – but the science is now clear that if we continue to pump even that remaining 20 per cent of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, climate change will accelerate and temperatures will continue to rise, along with its impacts and risks. 

Fail to strengthen our climate targets now and our children will grow up in a world of increased conflict over scarce resources, ever rising sea levels, more insecure food supplies, degraded wildlife and destroyed coral reefs. 

We also risk the truly terrifying prospect of hitting climate tipping points - such as the melting of arctic permafrost and subsequent release of huge stores of frozen greenhouse gases – that could mean we lose control of our climate for good. So to halt climate change at any level, we have to stop adding emissions to the atmosphere, as soon as feasibly possible. 

That’s why on 30 April I’m introducing a bill to commit the UK to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. If it gets onto the statute book, we would be the first G20 country to enshrine this commitment in law.

This legal commitment can also be a project of national renewal. It will require us to upgrade our leaky old housing stock and set a zero carbon standard for new builds – making the most efficient use of our energy. 100 per cent of our electricity will need to come from zero-carbon sources – including cheap renewables, nuclear, and gas with carbon capture and storage. As the costs of renewable power continue to tumble, this will help switching transport and heating to zero-carbon sources – including electricity, as well as biogas and hydrogen.

But while emissions can be cut virtually to zero in sectors such as electricity, transport and home heating, in others such as agriculture and aviation it may be more difficult. To make up for this, we’ll need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, balancing remaining emissions with removals (“negative emissions”). 

Hence “net zero”. This means the restoration of the British countryside, with a great tree planting project – and it means new technologies such as carbon capture and storage. The rest of the world will need all need this carbon removal tech – and we can be the country to develop it, perfect it, and sell it. 

Unsurprisingly then the move to net zero is hugely popular with business, and it’s backed by a coalition of major corporates including Heathrow Airport, Iberdrola, Tesco, Thames Water and Unilever. Professional medical bodies such as the Royal Colleges of Nursing and General Practitioners see the potential for cleaner air and back a UK net zero target before 2050, while the NFU is advocating net zero for the UK agricultural sector by 2040.

This shows the real power of net zero – not just a project of moral necessity but one of economic renewal, too. 

Of course we can’t do this alone – which is why the UK is bidding to host the vital UN climate change conference in 2020, so that we can leverage our climate leadership and encourage our friends and allies to do more as well. And it’s true that despite the huge progress we’ve made in bringing down the costs of renewables, and the enormous potential from new clean technologies, we know that a transformation on this scale won’t be easy. The changes needed in every part of our economy will be profound.

But the prize – of an economy renewed and a society united in a common purpose of no longer contributing to climate change – is more than worth it. Let’s go for net zero.

Also published on the Telegraph online.

Robert Courts: Planting for Success - introducing Nature Recovery Networks

By Robert Courts MP

By Robert Courts MP

Hedgehogs are, in their own understated way, an iconic British species - yet their populations are in steep decline, and have fallen by two-thirds since 1995. Britain’s only spiny mammal roams an average of two kilometers every night, but the lack of connected space to explore is devastating the native population. Likewise, three bumblebee species have become extinct in recent decades, in part due to their fragmenting habitats, including wildflower meadows. Wildflowers are also the food of choice for young turtle doves, which have declined by 90% since the 1980s. We run the risk of building a Britain without the beautiful natural inheritance that we have taken for granted. In order to tackle this we need not only to protect the habitats these creatures depend on, but link them up with a series of joined-up Nature Recovery Networks.

It is difficult for any business, council or developer to support the Government’s goals without clear targets and pathways to get there. Just as we set emission reduction targets to tackle climate change, so too we will set out targets to enhance our countryside and protect British wildlife in the upcoming Environment Bill. We’ve made great strides already with the 25 Year Environmental Plan which has outlined how we aim to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. And while investment in our existing national park structures and protected areas is vital, these in isolation won’t be enough. In order for all of us to work together to stop, and even reverse, the worrying trend in our declining wildlife, we need a better understanding of what needs protecting and where.

Nature Recovery Networks aim to utilise spatial planning tools to create a clear map of habitats, assets and natural features that can be assessed, protected and monitored to improve the delivery of our environmental targets. By using local expertise to create a national framework, we can work together to ensure a joined-up approach to protecting these spaces. It also gives farmers, developers and councils the clarity and confidence to make strategic decisions around these areas to manage the land effectively. It could mean, for instance, that several farmers team up to connect their hedgerows or that councils plant wildflowers along connected motorway verges. We can make sure these networks are included in our local plans and better assess where public funds should be spent to support this vital public good.

These networks can also identify space for more trees, which is particularly important after the Committee on Climate Change stated that we need to double the number of trees we’re planting if we plan to meet carbon sequestration targets. We now have a great Tree Champion in Sir William Worsley, to help us to implement our manifesto commitment of planting 11 million trees, plus a further one million urban trees in towns and cities. However, finding where these trees can go, and the most effective spaces where they can best support wildlife, can be a key function of the Nature Recovery Network.

Spatial planning is a translatable tool that different sectors can understand and factor into their decision making. We already use it to consider how to reduce flood risks or manage air pollution. Consulting on the national adoption of this plan would give local stakeholders and communities a chance to give their input on the areas in their neighbourhoods that need protecting, giving them a vested interest in the network’s success. It also gives us a chance to reconnect some communities with nature, particularly in rural areas. We know how access to parks can improve mental and physical health outcomes, so supporting a network of green spaces can help us humans too.

It is clear that business as usual cannot continue without risking even more of our precious wildlife. In many ways we have already led the world on how we respond to environmental breakdown - for example through introducing the world’s first Climate Change Act. We set targets to reduce our emissions, and we then reduced our emissions faster than any other G7 nation. We can now set conservation targets and outline pathways to meet them in an equally ambitious way. We can’t expect wild species to be increasingly confined to fenced off areas of nature, and we shouldn’t need to if Nature Recovery Networks can give them broader connected spaces to roam. I hope that the Environment Bill expected in the summer will consider this as a practical way to translate our ambitious objectives into reality.

Richard Benyon: The right response to the school strikes for climate change

By Richard Benyon MP

By Richard Benyon MP

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.

Rebecca Pow: Protecting our precious habitats - ancient woodland and veteran trees

By Rebecca Pow MP

By Rebecca Pow MP

With a background in agriculture, horticulture and environmental affairs, both in the field and through my former work as a broadcaster and journalist, I vowed that I would get involved in these crucial issues in Westminster with a view to raising them up the Government agenda. These are some of the reasons why I joined the Conservative Environment Network’s Caucus of MPs to work with like-minded colleagues on these issues. Fortunately this Government is listening and significant strides are being made in these areas.

One of my first endeavours was to set up the All-Party Group for Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees, with the backing of the Woodland Trust and a dedicated team of like-minded colleagues. The idea was to attract attention to this precious habitat with the aim of increasing protection for it. The group met regularly with Ministers and I was pleased to lead a debate in Parliament on this subject.  

Ancient woodland, is at least 400 years old and covers just 2% of the UK. This magical habitat is our equivalent of the rainforest and has developed over a long period of time into a highly biodiverse ecosystem which is home to a diverse variety of species. In addition the undisturbed soil beneath ancient woodland and veteran trees is an integral part of this valued habitat and once lost it cannot be ‘re-created’. Sadly over the past 100 years at least 45 rare and vulnerable species have disappeared because of the loss of ancient woodland and more than 1000 ancient woodlands have been under threat from competing interests in the last 10 years. Despite its natural capital value, there was no protection for this habitat. Even now the Woodland Trust is dealing with over 700 threats. Whilst I fully support the Government’s drive to build more homes with the appropriate infrastructure, this should not be at the expense of our natural environment. It is possible to have sustainable development in conjunction with nature.

The concerted approach by the APPG together with public support and pressure for other organisations, I am delighted to say, bore fruit. The Government heeded calls and through the Housing White paper and the National Planning Policy Framework (footnote 9) ancient woodland was afforded the same protection as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks, Green Belt and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Initially veteran trees, living legends in themselves, were not included but with further pressure this has been rectified

The revised NPPF, now instructs local planning authorities that "development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons" for which "a suitable compensation strategy exists". It makes exceptions for "infrastructure projects (including nationally significant infrastructure projects, orders under the Transport & Works Act and hybrid bills), where the public benefit would clearly outweigh the loss or deterioration of habitat". So, this won’t prevent all loss of this habitat but it’s a significant win for our woodland and demonstrates that it is possible to make a difference as a politician and importantly that this Government is demonstrating its commitment to leave the Environment in a better place than we found it, something the Prime Minister herself stated at the launch to the 25 Year Environment Plan.

I am determined to see that commitment upheld and demonstrated through the forthcoming Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill, Waste and Resources Strategy and of course the forthcoming Environment Bill itself. This Bill offers an important opportunity for us to create clear targets for halting and even reversing the decline we’re seeing in our wildlife. It’s particularly important for businesses to have a clear signal from the government about what we expect from them when it comes to environmental protections, so that they can plan for the future and help us in this monumental task too. An independent watchdog is also crucial to ensure oversight, provide guidance and guarantee that these targets are met.

One way of achieving these targets is to embrace the concept of Nature Recovery Networks, a joined-up system that highlights places important for plants and wildlife. Engaging a holistic approach will prevent fragmenting and isolating species and inevitably causing their decline. I hope this Bill will give us a chance to see many of our beloved British species bounce back by giving them the space they need to roam from one end of the country to the other.

Soil is another passion of mine (strange but true). Soil is our lifeblood, it’s enables us to grow healthy food, it cleans water, holds carbon so mitigates climate change and can reduce flooding and yet through mismanagement huge tracts of land will be rendered unproductive within a decade unless action is taken. Evidence from the EA Select Committee inquiry into soil, a debate on the subject and the launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance in Parliament which I was pleased to host have played their part in establishing soil health as a DEFRA priority.

Issues like these affect us all. It’s about our future sustainability. They touch not just DEFRA but every single Government department, from health (access to green space for example improves mental health), to HDCLG (green towns are better to live in), BEIS (renewable energy and energy efficiency cuts carbon emissions and saves on consumer bills). Crucially sustainability needs to be at the heart of treasury thinking. We are merely custodians of this land and it is beholden upon us to hand on a better world than we inherited; I am proud to be part of a Government that realises this. To be fully effective our policy decisions must increasingly have a joined up approach to this.

Antoinette Sandbach: Lower bills, less waste and better health. Time to insulate UK homes.

By Antoinette Sandbach MP

By Antoinette Sandbach MP

Published on Conservative Home

Last year, unnecessary winter deaths topped 50,000 – and more than 15,000 of these are directly relatable to a cold home.

This figure is shameful, and represents a huge amount of suffering. It is also clearly avoidable. There can be no justification for cold homes in the UK, blighting the lives of the neediest in society and leading to knock-on effects that spread through the economy – from lost working days to hospital visits and tumbling morale.

Before fingers start to be pointed, we must be clear: this figure is not due to rising energy bills, which, on average, have fallen over the past decade. They are also declining as a percentage of household income, the latest Ofgem data shows, as energy-hungry appliances are replaced with low-power alternatives and inefficient gas boilers are upgraded to the latest technology.

But while our TVs, computers and fridges are costing less to run, we still waste a huge amount of energy from UK homes in the form of heat. This is one of the largest open goals in UK politics: the lack of measures to insulate our homes and slash how much energy is wasted from leaky windows and poorly insulated walls and roofs.

Since 2008, the Government has logged the energy efficiency of UK homes as they have been sold or built; a register of 16 million homes that cover close to 1.5 billion square meters of British soil. They make for unpleasant reading. Upwards of 11 million of these miss the EPC C rating, which should be the bare minimum for any home.

This isn’t just a problem with older homes, in 2017, the largest entry on the register was band D properties, while more than 1.1 million properties are F- or G-rated, from which heat will be pouring out. Unquestionably, the homes of the poorest are likely to be the least-well insulated.

In addition to costing more to run, wasting so much heat requires us to import more gas from overseas, as well as unnecessarily adding to national carbon emissions. Imagine another aspect of life that was this wasteful. Cars that had not improved fuel efficiency in years, or businesses choosing not to boost competitiveness by reducing energy costs. It just doesn’t make sense.

Poorly insulated homes are also not fit for the future, something that Government is more than aware of. The Clean Growth Strategy aims to upgrade as many homes as possible to EPC grade C by 2035, but, unfortunately, is light on detail about how we get there.

Luckily, enthusiasm on both benches should help them decide. Building on recently-passed legislation that will ensure rented homes are warmer, cheaper and more pleasant to live in, a bill is working its way through the house on the potential for technology to boost energy efficiency. UK companies are among the market leaders in developing low-carbon tech, including on innovative efficiency kit, but without a route to market many of them will continue to rely on sales overseas.

A much-needed inquiry from the BEIS committee into energy waste will inject expert opinion into the debate, throwing forward a host of policies that can help us slash energy waste across the nation.

Legislation to ensure that new homes are built to the highest possible standards must, surely, make sense. Opposition from the housebuilding oligopoly needs to be shouted down, with developers forced to build high quality homes that will be cheap to run for decades to come.

The failure of the last wide-reaching piece of efficiency legislation – the Coalition-introduced Green Deal – should not dissuade ministers from acting in this space. It won’t be difficult to get this right – ensuring that new homes are built to the highest standards and that homeowners are incentivised to upgrade windows and insulate lofts.

After all, less money spent on heating leaves more to pump into the economy; research has shown that every pound invested in energy efficiency will boost GDP by £3.20 as the country is left with more disposable income to spend on household bills, new clothes or weekends away.

Other countries manage to insulate their homes far better than we do; it is not right that Britain should fall behind on such a simple act. If we get this right – and there is no reason why we should not – morbid headlines about winter deaths will rightly become a thing of the past and we as a nation will be able to take pride in all of society living in high quality homes.

Kevin Hollinrake: High environmental standards boost economic growth

By Kevin Hollinrake MP

By Kevin Hollinrake MP

Published on Conservative Home

British voters overwhelming support high environmental standards – 80 per cent, for example, want the UK to maintain our world-leading food safety regulations after we leave the European Union.

This is unsurprising – high environmental standards in agriculture keep our livestock healthy and our food safe to eat, and in product design they cut our energy bills by improving the efficiency of our ovens and toasters.

A sensible, long term framework of environmental rules spurs investment and innovation from business.

Many businesses of course face examples of vexatious red tape – and Brexit does provide us with the opportunity to cut some of the bureaucracy that has impeded business and made our lives more difficult. From the baffling small print on radio adverts, to compelling pharmacists to scan every medicine in front of their customers, there are plenty of nonsensical EU regulations that add unnecessary costs to businesses and should be scrapped.

Yet the desire to trim unnecessary red tape can sit comfortably alongside support for a long term, sensible framework of high environmental standards that, if properly enforced by an independent watchdog, will restore our countryside, clean up our air, and boost British business.

BuroHappold Engineering recently explored the relationship between environmental regulations and competitiveness, in particular the impact of the implementation of the London Plan in the construction sector, the Landfill Tax in the waste sector, and the passenger car emission regulations in the car industry.

In all three cases their analysis found that the upfront costs of complying with regulations were outweighed by the economic benefits they triggered through increased business investment in innovation and skills, better-quality products and infrastructure, greater business competitiveness, and job creation.

For example, there was an overwhelming consensus that despite flaws in the testing methodology, passenger car CO2 emission regulations have been a success story for the UK and EU car industry. The regulations have provided certainty, scale, and a clear framework to meet targets, without any negative impacts on competitiveness. The relatively stable and consistent regulatory framework has allowed for a long-term and broader view of managing the costs of compliance.

This commitment to a stable and consistent framework underpins the UK’s Climate Change Act – which, through its long-term approach to tackling global warming, has delivered certainty to businesses and deep reductions in CO2 emissions. Since 1990, we have cut emissions by 42 per cent, while our economy has grown by two-thirds. This means that we have reduced emissions faster than any other G7 nation, while leading the G7 in growth in national income over this period.

The same principle – that businesses benefit from a clear and consistent regulatory framework – underpins the Government’s Environment Bill. The Bill will set out clear goals and targets to reverse the damage done to the British countryside over previous decades and clean up our toxic air.

Businesses welcome the clarity provided by these targets. Anglian Water, for example, have argued that “when targets are too vague, it’s almost impossible to assess whether government is on track to hit them. In order for real progress to be made on the environment, goals within the Environment Bill must be carefully established with robust timetables.”

Businesses will then only invest if they have the confidence that these targets will be properly enforced: hence why the independence of the statutory body – the “watchdog” – is so crucial. Firms need to know that whoever is in government, their investments in things such as new technology to improve air quality will pay off.

The UK is a world leader in clean growth, with over 400,000 jobs in the low carbon economy: one in five electric vehicles sold in Europe in are made in Britain; our offshore wind sector is second to none; and the City of London is the home of green finance. This is in large part down to investment decisions that have been driven by our Climate Change Act – and the certainly provided to business by the existence of an independent Committee on Climate Change that will make sure standards are upheld.

We now have the opportunity to set the gold standard with a world-leading Environment Bill, and achieve similar results for British nature, while providing the certainty British businesses need about the direction of travel to a cleaner, more prosperous future.

Ben Bradley: The Best Brexit for Bees

By Ben Bradley MP

By Ben Bradley MP

While the past few months have been saturated with Brexit, other issues continue to fly into my inbox - and the fate of our tiny pollinators rightly generates a huge amount of buzz amongst my constituents.

Bees and Brexit have more in common than you’d think. 35 of the UK’s bee species are currently under threat of extinction, while 76% of UK butterfly species and 66% of UK moth species are in decline. The disastrous Common Agricultural Policy has decimated our countryside, and wildflower meadows, which bees rely on to get from place to place, have declined by 97% since the second world war.

Earlier this year I introduced the Protection of Pollinators Bill to Parliament which aimed to create protected wildflower corridors for bees and other insects.

It is important to note that the value of the UK’s 1,500 species of pollinators to our farms and crops is estimated to be £400-680 million per year. They’re vital for the food we eat, and the plants that other species rely on as well.

I was delighted that following the introduction of my Bill, Michael Gove pledged £60,000 to map these important habitat corridors and identify where we should focus our conservation efforts to best protect pollinators. This will inform our National Pollinator Strategy, a 10 year plan for collaborative efforts to improve the status of pollinators, and other measures like our pledge to ban neonicotinoids (certain sorts of pesticides) will help too.

The first Environment Bill in over 20 years also promises to provide new opportunities for standards to protect pollinators for various sectors from industry to developers and so on. A consultation launched last week looks at introducing an environmental net gain principle for developers to promote biodiversity, and wildflowers should form a part of this. All of these domestic policies are hugely welcome and demonstrate the Conservative Party’s green credentials.

Brexit offers a real chance for change. CAP has decimated the British countryside - the number of pollinating insects has declined by 13% since 1980. Rather than simply handing over taxpayers’ cash to landowners on a per acreage basis, our new Agriculture Bill will reward farmers for providing public, environmental goods. That can include support for the wildflower corridors that bees and other pollinators rely on around their farms. Farmers, who know how important these insects are to their business, will finally get the support needed to protect them.

And that’s not all. Michael Gove has said that he supports looking at further controls on pesticides in the UK. Outside of the EU we will have the chance to better assess how we manage our environment and ensure that we tailor our policies to suit our unique environment and native species. This opportunity to take back control of our environmental policies, coupled with rewards for environmentally friendly farming practices from the Agriculture Bill, will have a huge impact on the way our agriculture interacts with our wildlife, bees and bugs.

We know that there is a problem, bees and other pollinators are in trouble, and we know what we need to do to fix it. With the National Pollinator Strategy, the Agriculture Bill, a green Brexit and funding for pollinator corridors (as outlined in my Bill) I am confident that British bees will soon be flourishing once again.

Zac Goldsmith: The Government should think again on fracking planning changes

By Zac Goldsmith MP

By Zac Goldsmith MP

Despite false starts and a few tremors, fracking has begun again in the UK for the first time since 2011. In large part thanks to this long delay, the Government is now proposing to make it easier for developers to start drilling by loosening the planning rules relating to it, and reducing the power that local people have over new fracking sites in their area.

Under current proposals so-called “exploratory drilling” could be approved via permitted development - bypassing the standard planning process. Exploratory drilling would, in planning terms, be treated along the same lines as a new conservatory. Meanwhile, decisions on full-scale fracking could be approved by Westminster via the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project Regime - rather than by elected local councils.

This would be a huge mistake. Whatever the arguments for fracking, a firm commitment to local democracy has rightly been a mantra of modern conservatism. It is only at the local level that local concerns can properly be taken into account. When a local authority reviews a shale gas application it will look at very local issues, from road access, the effects of large volumes of truck movements, light and noise pollution and so on. No one can argue that central Government can possibly understand these local concerns from Whitehall.

The Government cannot square its often-stated commitment to localism and democratic planning with these proposals. Nor for that matter can they be squared with the Government’s policy in relation to the far less disruptive and more popular on-shore wind turbines, which can be rejected or approved locally.

Given the potential for methane leakages, the Committee on Climate Change are sceptical that fracking can be done in a way that is environmentally friendly - but they acknowledge that gas will continue to play a part of our energy mix for decades, as a bridge from a world powered by fossil fuels to a net zero emissions economy. Indeed part of the Government’s success in decarbonisation in recent years has been the shift from generating electricity from coal to gas - although it is worth stating that new renewables, including wind and solar, are now cheaper than both.

But the argument that fracking will reduce our reliance on Russian gas simply does not stand up to scrutiny. According to Ministers in 2016 just 1% of UK gas came from Russia. The largest amount of our gas is imported from Norway - a friend and ally that is highly unlikely to turn off the taps any time soon.

In addition, to replace this imported gas, we would need to frack on a hopelessly unrealistic scale. To replace just 50% of the gas that we import, the British countryside would need to be pockmarked by over 6,000 well pads. The UK is not Utah. Without the wide open spaces needed to host the industrial equipment and sheer volume of trucks, fracking in the UK will necessarily blight communities - and the Government will face a huge backlash from these communities if it imposes fracking on them against their will.

It is difficult to overstate just how unpopular fracking is with the British public. The last BEIS attitude tracker showed only 18% support. For context, 76% of respondents supported onshore wind. Fracking is so unpopular that BEIS have now stopped asking what people think about it for fear of the results. MPs who have sites in their constituencies will tell you that those opposed to fracking are not just the predictable gaggle of left-wing campaigners - these are Conservative voters who are deeply about concerned about the mass-scale industrialisation of the British countryside. We ignore their concerns at our peril.

This unpopularity explains the delay in fracking in the UK. Understandably, people do not want the trucks, the tremors, the noise, the nuisance, and the pollution coming to their area. The response from the Government cannot be to simply change the rules and make it harder for concerned local people - and even elected local representatives - to object. By holding a consultation on planning regulations the Government has fulfilled its manifesto commitment to review the planning rules around exploratory drilling and fracking.

But by now, the Government surely has its answer: the final say on fracking should remain with local people.

Robert Courts: It is within our power to save our precious natural inheritance

By Robert Courts MP

By Robert Courts MP

“While the conventional, political dangers—the threat of global annihilation, the fact of regional war—appear to be receding, we have all recently become aware of another insidious danger.

It is as menacing in its way as those more accustomed perils with which international diplomacy has concerned itself for centuries.

It is the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.”

-       Margaret Thatcher, Speech to United Nations General Assembly, 1989 Nov 8

The threats posed to our natural world have become increasingly clear since Margaret Thatcher became the first world leader to raise climate change at the UN. Last week the IPCC’s latest report warned of the millions more who would be driven from their homes by rising sea levels, the increasing flood damage both in the UK and abroad, and the economic growth lost in a world in which we fail to limit global warming to 1.5C.

The report also highlighted the threat climate change poses to some of the planets most beautiful flora and fauna. The science is clear: every fraction of a degree matters. Unless we limit global warming to 1.5C we could lose virtually all of the world’s coral reefs by 2100 and expose our marine environments to even greater risks than those covered by Blue Planet II. As a diver, and a marine conservation society member, I’m therefore delighted that the Government has formally asked the Committee on Climate Change for their advice on bringing our climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement, and limiting global warming to 1.5C by going net zero. This will not be easy, but with political will and investment in new technologies like electric vehicles and cheap renewable energy, we can protect our planet from the worst effects of climate change. 

Last week’s Illegal Wildlife Trade conference highlighted another threat posed to the natural world. Serious organised crime on a huge scale is hastening a mass annihilation of species. The figures are stark. Africa’s elephant population has declined by 70% since 1979. There are only 3,800 tigers left in the wild. Four rhinos, one of the most endangered species on the planet, are killed every day for their horns. Thanks to poaching and habitat loss, our children could soon be growing up in a world without rhinos, elephants and tigers - a world robbed of some of the planet’s most magnificent and majestic species.

We can be proud of the work the UK did last week in bringing together countries to fight back against this evil trade - and in leading the way with our own ivory ban. We must now encourage other countries - not least in the main markets for ivory in the Far East, to do the same. 

Here in the UK, the Government has taken a big step towards protecting and enhancing our natural inheritance with a new Agriculture Bill.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has decimated British wildlife, while failing to properly support farmers to invest in their businesses. Since 1970 there has been a significant decline in the numbers of British woodland and farmland birds. Pollinating insects have declined by 13 per cent since 1980. CAP payments are regressive and poor value for money for taxpayers - the largest landowners get the bulk of the money with little to no strings attached. Perversely, CAP often penalises those farmers looking to improve our natural environment - for example farmers lose direct payments if they plant trees on their land, because they are taking it out of agricultural production.

The Government’s new scheme will be based on the principle of public money for public goods. Farmers and land managers will be rewarded for the work they do to enhance our precious natural environment. Public goods will include the enriching of wildlife habitats and improving the quality of air, water and soil – natural assets upon which our wellbeing and economic prosperity depend.

We will continue to champion farmers in their core business of producing world-class food and help them to make their businesses more resilient, productive and internationally competitive. However, there is an argument that production of food, for which there is already a flourishing private market - does not require public subsidy - instead public money will be used to support those ecological goods for which there is no market.

This new system will also contribute to reducing flood risk, and help us to prevent and mitigate the effects of climate change. As we move to a net zero society, emissions from agriculture will have to fall. Through the restoration of the British countryside, the Government’s Agriculture Bill will help us protect British nature, while reducing the emissions that threaten wildlife around the world.

As Margaret Thatcher said we are in a struggle to preserve our oceans, our atmosphere, and even the earth itself. Yet with a clear trajectory to reduce our emission to net zero, policies to make that a reality, action to protect our most beautiful species and investment in innovative new technologies, it is a struggle I am confident we can win.