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Henry Haslam: To reach net zero, people's behaviour must change. This means we need conservatism

We have known, for many years, about the risks we have been taking with our environment and our planet, but how far have the warnings been understood by the population at large? It is estimated that a third of the required emissions reductions depend on behavioural change by individuals and households. In spite of all the publicity, there is little sign that such change is taking place. Should we seek a different way – a more Conservative way – of presenting the environmentalist message?

Henry Haslam Author of The Earth and Us

One of the strengths of Conservatives, traditionally, has been an understanding of the realities of human nature and its potential as well as its fallibility: effective policies depend on this. We should avoid the cynical and simplistic view that people will always behave irresponsibly unless the government compels them otherwise. Conservatives reject compulsion, on nanny-state grounds, but that doesn’t mean we should just accept that people won’t change. There are many examples of societies changing their values. Conservatives can take the lead and, with a light touch, inspire, encourage and support people to think for themselves, to behave responsibly with regard to the health and well-being of the planet.


Conservatives should have been taking the lead in environmental matters. It’s in our name. We seek to conserve all that is best about our society, our country and our world. We recognise how much we have benefited from the achievements of past generations. In turn, we wish to leave a legacy of which we can be proud and for which those who come after us will be grateful.


Instead, we have carelessly allowed the left to take the lead. For to many people, environmental causes are associated with the left. At one stage, environmentalism was taken up as a weapon against capitalism; that was the era of watermelons – green on the outside and red on the inside. Now, it is another left-wing ideology that is dominant. The answer to every question lies with big government. Climate and environmental matters are discussed as if they were binary issues. The choice is between carrying on as before, with environment-damaging activities, or, alternatively, implementing large projects led by government, projects that carry their own environmental footprint as well as carrying a price tag that has to be paid by the public in higher taxes and/or higher costs.


There is undoubtedly a need for such government action, but what is missing is the role of individuals in voluntarily changing their behaviour. This is where Conservatives can take the lead.


John Redwood, in Build Back Green, said: ‘Only if a top-down revolution fires the popular imagination and becomes a bottom-up revolution will a passage to a green future be affordable and quicker’.


There are several advantages in putting more emphasis on the role of the individual. First, the changes that we make will be voluntary and tailored to our personal circumstances.


Second, many of the changes we can make will save us money (in contrast to the cost to the public of government projects) as well as benefiting the environment: less travel, less energy in the home, less meat and dairy in the diet, less clothing and other stuff that we are soon going to dispose of.


Third, reducing our environment-damaging activities opens up other opportunities. There are many activities, including ways of earning and spending money, that do little or no damage to the environment. Many service industries have a low environmental footprint, and so does a great deal of online activity. There’s teaching and learning, social and medical care, sport, the creative arts, and many more.


Fourth, rapid results. Interviewed by The Times in 2009, Sir Terry Leahy said ‘It is going to take a long time for countries to reduce their carbon emissions, but consumers can do it overnight, just by changing their behaviour’. Leahy, of course, knew a thing or two about consumers and how they can change their behaviour - during his time as chief executive of Tesco, he increased the company's UK market share from 20 per cent to 30 per cent.


Fifth, if we reduce the demand for electricity we reduce the need for government to install generating, transmission and storage capacity. This will save us money again and reduce the environmental impact of all those installations.


Finally, it is worth emphasising that these voluntary lifestyle changes do not mean taking away everything that makes life worth living. It has often been observed that the consumer lifestyle, with its demand for economic growth, fails to deliver the happiness that it promises: it simply creates a craving for more. Lives that are nature-friendly, valuing people more than things, can be more fulfilling and satisfying.

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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 info@cen.uk.com.

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