I have heard it said that you have to be rich to be green. I can understand the sentiment – heat pumps and electric vehicles are expensive – but it represents a fundamental misconception. If we are doing things that damage the environment, the simplest thing, if we want to benefit the environment, is to do less of them.
There are signs that both the Government and the Labour opposition have decided to give lower priority to environment issues. The government maintains that it is still committed, but it appears to be letting things drift. There is no initiative to speed up the insulation of properties or the installation of heat pumps. There is no move to get developers to install solar panels on new buildings. There is no intention to remove the ban on onshore wind farms. Business leaders claim that they are ready to go forward but need a clearer sense of direction from government.
The reasons for this may be partly political and partly financial. On the political front, there are some Conservatives who are opposed to the policy of net zero. The CEN, strengthened by its new advisory council, is well placed to remind the government of the strong support, throughout the party, for environmental policies.
The financial reasons for delay are stronger. There is pressure on government finances – and on the finances of many households.
The move to better ways of caring about the environment advances on three fronts: government; technology, invention and industry; and the general public. The greatest advance has been in the second of these: new technologies are being developed at speed. Second comes government, which has achieved a great deal in decarbonising electricity generation but in other respects it is slow to act. The general public are lagging behind. They have understood about recycling and have gone along with it, but in other respects their lifestyle choices are motivated more by financial and other considerations than by environmental concerns.
It is these financial considerations that make the case for focusing more on individuals and households. Many of the actions required by government do indeed require spending. On the other hand, households can benefit the environment and save money at the same time – just by doing less: less travel, less energy in the home, less meat and dairy in the diet, less purchasing of stuff that we are soon going to get rid of. In the little mantra ‘Reduce, reuse/redistribute, repair, recycle’, the first step is to reduce. Recycling is commendable, but it is at the end of the list: we only recycle when all else fails.
A few months ago the Environment and Climate Change Committee of the House of Lords issued a report entitled ‘In our hands: behaviour change for climate and environmental goals’. This report emphasises that people power is critical to meeting government targets: ‘We have identified that 32 per cent of emissions reductions up to 2035 require decisions by individuals and households to adopt low-carbon technologies and choose low-carbon products and services, as well as reduce carbon-intensive consumption.’ The report then stresses the need for leadership from the government.
The government seems to have rejected this advice. Perhaps it is because they think it smacks of the nanny state. Conservatives don’t like the nanny state. Rightly so. But providing inspirational leadership in a good cause is not the nanny state.
It is time for the general public to become more involved and engaged. Not only because the damage to the environment is a consequence of the way we all live, but also because their support and involvement is essential if progress is to be made on the other two fronts. Government can only do what the voters will tolerate, and business and industry will only produce goods and services that customers will pay for. Much power lies with the public. They must be on side.
There are many people who would like to do their bit, but would like some guidance. Such guidance can be provided by government or by the campaigning groups who have the attention of the media.
Extinction Rebellion has been very successful in getting media attention. This offered a great opportunity to inspire the general public to adopt more environment-friendly lifestyles. Did they rise to the challenge? No, they turned their back on it. Their message to the general public was that environmental problems were nothing to do with their lifestyle: they were all the fault of government policies (and/or oil companies and/or big business). They addressed their message to government – who knew it all anyway (they receive expert advice from their very own Climate Change Committee and many others) and had been working on it (albeit slowly) for years. Furthermore, their disruptive activities – and those of Just Stop Oil – have aroused so much opposition to climate policies that neither the government nor the opposition feel that they would have public support for raising taxes to do what is necessary. The more positive campaign, 'Take the Jump', hasn’t achieved the same level of media limelight.
There have been books and magazine articles describing the damage to the environment and the lifestyle changes that would help – but somehow the message hasn’t got through. Do we need a change of narrative? Could more use be made of the expertise of the advertising industry? They have been outstandingly successful, over many years, in persuading us to live in ways that damage the environment. Could the same skills be applied in commending sustainable lifestyles?
Views expressed in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of the Conservative Environment Network. If you are a CEN supporter, councillor, or parliamentarian and would like to write for the CEN blog, please email your idea to email@example.com.