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The Prime Minister's failure to champion the environment could cost him the next election

"The problem is not that the government is hostile to the environment, it is that you, our Prime Minister, are simply uninterested."

That line from Zac Goldsmith's resignation letter last Friday will have stung. It speaks to concerns expressed by others that environmental action has slipped off the UK's priority list. Right when the clock is ticking to halt nature's decline by 2030, and the net zero race to stop climate change and win green investment is heating up, accusations from such a committed environmental champion about a lack of interest from Number 10 are worrying.

Goldsmith's departure is a loss to the government. As a heartfelt environmentalist, he enthusiastically drove environmental action from the Foreign Office. He helped negotiate the COP26 deal to tackle deforestation and an ambitious commitment to spend more UK aid spending on climate and nature projects. Last year, he also helped secure the ambitious UN biodiversity deal at the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal to protect 30 per cent of our land and seas by the decade's end.

While not a publicly prominent minister, Goldsmith's resignation will speak to voters concerned about the environment, civil society groups and other countries he built links with as International Environment Minister who fear the UK might backslide on the environment. It demonstrates the Prime Minister's mistake in not putting the environment explicitly in his five-point plan despite its importance at home and abroad.

But Goldsmith's personal criticism of Rishi Sunak isn't totally deserved. While Chancellor Rishi Sunak laid out plans to make the UK the world's first net zero financial centre. He also listened to a campaign by Conservative Environment Network (CEN) parliamentarians to scrap VAT on insulation, heat pumps and solar panels. During the Conservative leadership race, he signed CEN's pledge to deliver on the UK's targets to achieve net zero and reverse nature's decline. In Downing Street, he quickly ended uncertainty about the future of nature-friendly farm subsidy reform and restarted the Energy Bill, recommitting to the Conservative manifesto's environmental promises.

But while there is a case Sunak is interested, the environment's absence from his list of five priorities can't be disputed. This omission is poorly advised for four reasons. Firstly, leading on the environment has been vital to Conservative victories since 2010. Secondly, it's a core part of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's 2019 manifesto and electoral coalition, which Sunak promised to deliver and hopes to retain. Finally, green solutions are critical to achieving the five priorities he has set out, which he hopes to have made meaningful progress on by the end of the year to earn voters' trust. Finally, environmental ambition is an electoral asset, not a liability as some conservatives fear, as anti-net zero Reform UK's failure in May's local elections shows.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, our reliance on oil and gas costs the public dearly, and the ensuing economic damage is hurting the Conservatives in the polls. The energy crisis isn't Britain's only economic challenge. We still need to reap Brexit opportunities and deal with the pandemic fallout of economic inactivity, public debt, and reliance on the state. But delivering on the Prime Minister's goals to halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce public debt are predicated on driving energy costs down. The best levers at his disposal are insulating homes and building renewables on sea and land.

But as the critical Climate Change Committee progress report shows, Britain isn't going far enough or fast enough in these areas and more. This report is more than just an awkward media headline for the government. It's a warning of insufficient action that voters will note as the impact of climate change becomes more visible. The public can already see it with record-breaking ocean temperatures causing untold damage to the marine environment and the hottest June on record bringing water shortages that shut schools. While the cost of living and NHS worries top opinion polls, the environment hasn't shrunk as an issue for voters; they still expect action.

Inaction isn't just an environmental risk but an economic one. Over 90 per cent of the world's economy is covered by net zero targets. This is the economic opportunity of the century. While we are well-placed to be a leader in the transition to a green economy, it won't just fall into our lap in an increasingly competitive race; the government needs to chase it. As we still wait for a British response to the USA's Inflation Reduction Act and the EU's handouts and tax breaks, which are luring green investment away from our shores to theirs, our country is quickly becoming a relatively unattractive place to invest.

But with all of these challenges to be met and opportunities grasped, the Conservatives under Sunak have focused their rhetoric not on its green record but on its support for oil and gas. The cross-party net zero consensus remains, and political parties look for dividing lines ahead of elections. But it's a strategic mistake. Undoubtedly, Just Stop Oil is unpopular and counter-productive; therefore, linking the Labour Party to it is enticing for the Conservatives. But with the environment missing from the Prime Minister's five priorities, this approach means the Conservatives will spend far more time discussing unpopular fossil fuels than championing its renewable success.

However, it's not too late for Sunak to more eagerly run with the environmental baton passed down by his predecessors. While it's very unlikely he'll change his five priorities at this point, he needs to ensure that the environment plays a big part in his vision for the country. To secure a historic fifth term for the Conservatives, he cannot surrender the environment as the issue to the Labour Party. Equally, if he wins, his government will be responsible for delivering on its pledge to reverse the decline of nature and decarbonise 95 per cent of our grid by 2030. He needs to lead on these issues and more.

As with last year, reports of the death of conservative environmentalism have been greatly exaggerated. Goldsmith has resigned, but many more environmentally ambitious Conservatives remain. Forty-one former members of CEN's backbench parliamentary caucus serve in government, from the whips office to Number 11. The Conservatives have a proud environmental record, from building renewables and making the UK a world leader in offshore wind to legislating for net zero and the Environment Act. They need to champion and build on this record, not shy away from it.

First published by BusinessGreen. Cameron Smith is the Head of Communications for the Conservative Environment Network.

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