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Cameron Smith: Tory environmentalism survived an onslaught in 2022 - and thrived

Cameron Smith (Head of Communications at CEN)

With near-constant political upheaval, a war in Europe, and soaring inflation, public debt and energy bills, 2022 has been a grim year. Given these immense challenges and disruptions, our country’s environmental plans have come under intense scrutiny and debate. But despite the rollercoaster, conservative environmentalism has emerged stronger with a hefty delivery record.

No, not every ministerial decision has been correct, and we can’t brush this year’s political messes under the carpet. And yes, there are still miles to go to reach net zero and halt the decline of nature. But significant progress has been made, and we should recognise the achievements of conservative environmentalists both in government and on the backbenches.

Because with sky-high energy bills and tight public finances, it could have been very different. Some on the right of British politics saw the gas crisis as their opportunity to derail net zero and weaken public support for bold climate action. However, their arguments have been defeated by the strong economic, environmental and security case for achieving net zero.

Public opinion resoundingly blames our reliance on fossil fuels for soaring energy prices, not green levies, renewables or other net zero policies. Instead, the vast majority think expanding wind and solar power while insulating homes is the long-term answer, not extracting more oil and gas. And the UK’s only anti-net zero political party, Reform UK, languishes at 5 per cent in the polls, tied with the Green Party.

Beyond polls, consumers continue to drive the UK’s push to net zero to escape volatile household energy bills and petrol prices. Fifteen per cent of new cars sold in 2022 were electric. By August, 30 per cent more households had installed rooftop solar than last year. There’s also a rush for energy efficiency products, with B&Q reporting a 108 per cent increase in loft insulation sales and Screwfix a 29 per cent rise in smart thermostat sales.

And net zero remains at the heart of the government’s agenda. Campaigners’ fears that Boris Johnson’s exit from Downing Street could spell the end of conservative environmentalism were unfounded. Both his successors this year, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, signed the Conservative Environment Network’s (CEN) pledge, committing to net zero, halting the decline of nature and continuing the Conservative Party’s environmental leadership.

Truss even promised to “double down” on net zero and asked CEN MP Chris Skidmore, a long-standing champion of net zero, to review the UK’s policies to achieve the goal and find ways to maximise the economic opportunities. Sunak is resolute in adhering to the party’s net zero backing 2019 manifesto, immediately reinstating the moratorium on fracking.

Our transition to renewable energy has been accelerated. Johnson’s Energy Security Strategy set a new ambitious target for 95 per cent of our electricity to be low carbon by 2030, bringing forward the bulk of the UK’s efforts to decarbonise the grid from the 2035 goal. Our target for floating offshore wind increased fivefold following calls from CEN MPs.

Auctions for renewables will now be held annually, and this year’s was the biggest ever, securing enough power for twelve million homes at record-low prices. Sunak has also announced plans to lift the de facto onshore wind ban in England after a successful campaign by CEN MP Simon Clarke, while rumoured restrictions on solar farms will not go ahead.

Energy efficiency is, at last, starting to be taken seriously. CEN MPs successfully campaigned for VAT on insulation to be scrapped. Truss announced plans to expand the successful Energy Company Obligation scheme following another campaign by CEN, which Sunak’s administration is now delivering. The £1 billion investment will help insulate hundreds of thousands of homes at risk of fuel poverty.

An every-saving campaign is finally underway to help households cut their bills and conserve gas. The Chancellor announced a new Energy Efficiency Taskforce to boost insulation and set a new target to reduce energy consumption by 15 per cent over the next eight years, with £6 billion more investment pledged to deliver on the ambition.

After long campaigns from CEN MPs, we’ve also seen bolder action to restore nature, from improved education in our schools to better protections for our waters and species. A new natural history GCSE will be introduced to give young people more opportunities to learn about the environment, engage with nature and pursue careers in green industries. Five Highly Protected Marine areas will be piloted in English waters to ban fishing and rewild the sea. And beavers will be protected under the law, making it a criminal offence to capture, kill or disturb them.

Food security concerns following the invasion of Ukraine have not led to abandoning farm subsidy reforms. The rollout of the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) will continue, with the principle of paying farmers for delivering public goods like clean air and water intact despite a review.

To clean up our rivers and seas, tougher fines are being imposed on illegally polluting water companies. Criminal fines and prosecutions are on the up, and with the cap on civil fines increased, firms who used to see fines as the price of doing business are finally paying for the environmental damage they cause.

Within two weeks of CEN’s water manifesto’s publication, the government adopted the idea of ring-fencing revenue from fines to tackle pollution and restore rivers and waterways. It’s a small step to make polluters pay, and if it had been in place since 2015, it could have reinvested £141 million into river restoration.

Tougher criminal and civil sanctions will spur water firms to act, while the continued rollout of ELMs will reward farmers for sustainable practices, reducing polluting agricultural runoff. At the same time, the government’s new plan to tackle storm overflows with £56 billion of investment will begin to upgrade our ageing, polluting and broken Victorian sewerage infrastructure, which is to blame.

There’s no denying that environmental policy has had far too many ups and downs in 2022. Old battles like fracking have been unnecessarily refought, and missteps during the political upheaval have created uncertainty and damaged the Conservative Party’s environmental reputation. But it’s not beyond repair.

Next year, we conservative environmentalists will need to turn our attention to the missing links in our climate and nature policies. We need to improve the grid to ready it for many more renewables, encourage many more homes to invest in energy efficiency, and take further action to clean up our rivers, seas, and waterways.

Ahead of the next election in 2024, the Conservative Party will want to double down on bold environmental action. It’s a top issue for many voters, and the party already has a strong record of delivery. And CEN will continue its campaign to ensure the party keep its environmental leadership up and builds on its achievements.


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