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Sam Hall: Celebrating CEN's tenth anniversary

Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network

This week the Conservative Environment Network turns ten. We have much to celebrate. There are many more vocal advocates for the environment among conservative parliamentarians and councillors than when CEN was set up. Environmental ambition levels have been raised and positive steps to deliver our targets have been taken by conservatives in government. There remains much more to do, and the voices of environmentalists within the conservative movement are needed more than ever, but we should be proud of how far we have come.

Despite CEN's youth, concern for the environment has always been an important strand of British conservatism. Anyone who has attended a CEN event or read a publication over the past ten years will know that the great philosophers of conservatism, Edmund Burke and Roger Scruton, both argue the core conservative instinct to hand on a good inheritance to future generations is best exemplified in the environment. A succession of conservative leaders, from Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson, have been vocal advocates of environmentalism and taken bold action while in office.

During the ten years of its existence, CEN's role has been to remind the conservative movement of this heritage. There was a sense that conservatives had little to say on the environment, that the environment was a left-wing topic, and that tackling threats to the natural world inevitably meant adopting left-wing solutions. In short, conservatives didn't feel they had permission to speak up on the great environmental challenges of our age.

CEN has sought to counter that and to give more conservatives the confidence to talk about the environment. This started in parliament with our parliamentary caucus - originally a dozen or so MPs, but now around half the Conservative Party's backbenchers. Green conservatives are now leading the environmental debate in Westminster, asking questions in parliament, lobbying ministers, and campaigning for bolder and greener policies. CEN caucus members - 45 in total - have gone into government, putting their campaigns into policy.

Since the caucus was set up in 2018, CEN has also expanded our network to include local councillors, grassroots activists, and international parliamentarians. In 2021, 350 legislators from 50 different countries signed our centre-right climate action declaration at COP26. There are now over 1,000 grassroots supporters and councillors in our network combined. And our network continues to grow: this year, we launched our Scottish Parliamentary Group, which now has half of Conservative MSPs signed up.

Looking back at this period of Conservative government, emissions reduction has been one of its greatest success stories across all policy areas. Reforming the wasteful and environmentally harmful Common Agricultural Policy is set to be one of the most significant benefits of Brexit. And COP26 was the biggest diplomatic event the UK has ever hosted, securing measurable improvements to global climate ambition.

But while I hope conservatives take great pride in what the party has achieved in government, I also hope they are not complacent about what remains to be done. Nature is still in decline. Public concern about the state of our rivers remains. This month, we have seen news of record ocean temperatures and Arctic summer ice melting. UK emissions have fallen substantially in the power sector, but progress has been slower on buildings and heavy industry.

The UK has been fortunate to enjoy a cross-party consensus around the need to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. CEN is committed to maintaining this, as it ensures stability for businesses seeking to invest in solutions to environmental challenges. It is right that there is a vigorous policy debate about the best way to reach net zero and restore nature and the roles of the public and private sectors in those transitions. Conservatives need to continue putting forward their positive agenda for the environment and not cede this ground to the left.

Since its launch, CEN has been fortunate to work with many conservative politicians and leaders who have understood the importance of the environment for its own sake, as well as politically and economically. Over the next ten years, CEN wants to engage the next generation of political leaders and the conservative grassroots to continue making the case for ambitious climate and biodiversity action. Tonight we will celebrate how far we've come but also look ahead to the important work of the next decade.


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