It’s hard to think of a policy issue where “long-term decision-making” is more important than our stewardship of the natural world. It is hard to think of a “brighter future” than one with clean growth and the restoration of nature at its core. So it was good to hear the prime minister underscore his commitment to the environment.
He reiterated the arguments from his recent speech on net zero. We do need to minimise the costs for households and preserve the consent of the public. The UK does have a world-leading record on emissions reduction. Too few people realise the UK is halfway to net zero. But while not much has changed in policy terms on net zero, concerns about the government’s narrative were voiced across the fringe of the party conference. Past success at decarbonisation should not be a reason for complacency. We should be reaping the economic benefits from our head start by developing and exporting the technologies of the future, not letting other countries overtake us. Nor can it be politically prudent to validate arguments against the previous net zero strategy, which is not substantively different from Sunak’s new approach.
The speech didn’t include many new green policies. Environmentalists will have mixed feelings about the scaling back of HS2. It has caused local environmental damage, particularly to ancient woodland, but it would also have offered a low-carbon option for longer journeys. The improvements to regional rail networks announced in its place could be transformational for the economy as well as transport sustainability. However, the rapid inflation in the HS2 budget has revealed the sky-high costs of building transport infrastructure in the UK. This underlying problem will need to be tackled if we’re to reach net zero affordably.
The prime minister still has more to do to demonstrate how the UK will meet our climate targets through carrots rather than sticks. As we approach the next election, this could give the Conservatives a more positive narrative on the environment.