In less than three decades, our country must reach net zero to avoid the worst impacts of climate change for our economy and national security. We're already halfway there, nearly halving our emissions since 1990. But to achieve this momentous goal, we must now build support for the individual policies needed, while preserving the cross-party consensus on the need to act. Conservatives want to protect our planet, but that doesn't mean they'll agree on every policy campaigners propose to get there. The public wants the debate to focus on how, not if, we reach carbon neutrality.
There is a conservative route to net zero. It's not a contradiction in terms. The UK has a long and rich history of conservative environmentalism. In 1989, Margaret Thatcher became the first world leader to raise the spectre of climate change on the world stage. Four decades later, another Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, fired the starting gun on the race to net zero by 2050, enshrining the target in law.
Overwhelmingly, Conservative voters back environmental action. A recent poll revealed that 73 per cent back the net zero target - a higher proportion than all voters. YouGov's tracker poll consistently shows they rank the environment as the fourth most important issue facing the country. Nine in ten support solar power and offshore wind. Almost two-thirds think the ban on onshore wind in England must end.
Some conservatives sceptical of net zero and the severity of climate change view environmental action as an electoral liability. They're far from the majority, but they are an increasingly loud group. They've drawn the wrong conclusions from the Uxbridge by-election, where the Conservatives won on an anti-ULEZ, not anti-environment, ticket. They've misunderstood cases of local backlash to poorly-implemented Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. And they've misread the public's rejection of Just Stop Oil's divisive stunts as a wider rebuff of climate action.
Like all voters, conservatives want fair, affordable environmental policies that maximise benefits while limiting direct costs. Two-thirds of Conservative voters support green policies which don’t put the costs on ordinary people, while only 17 per cent back them if they do result in costs. But polling shows the same is true about other policy priorities, like health and crime. Politicians should ignore the extremes of disruptive protestors and climate sceptics who often dominate the media debate, and instead respond to people’s concern about climate change in a way that minimises the costs.
On the right, sceptics can't undo the consensus around climate change so instead target specific policies where the public case still needs to be won, such as the rollout of electric cars and heat pumps. We'll need these two technologies to reach net zero, but the prices of both have yet to plummet sufficiently. The answer isn't to ditch them, but use the market to make them the cheapest and best options. Bold government targets, early support through R&D funding, subsidies, tax breaks, and light regulation can spur businesses to innovate and deploy clean technologies. Just as we've scaled up renewables to provide over 40 per cent of our electricity today while making it the cheapest new energy source available, we need to do the same for electric vehicles and heat pumps. That's why the zero emission vehicle mandate and government grants to support low-carbon heating are so important.
Similarly, there needs to be a conservative approach to transport. Cars are the only realistic transport option in most parts of the country, which is why the electric vehicle transition is the essential policy for transport decarbonisation. Our cities and towns shouldn't be anti-car, but also shouldn't prioritise them above everything else, given the limits on road space and the impacts on communities and the environment. Instead, we need to focus on expanding people's transport choices. Politicians should give people cheaper, greener travel methods, whether by improving public transport, carefully consulting on active travel infrastructure, or enabling innovative solutions like e-scooters. Most will choose them when provided, allowing those who need to drive to continue to do so.
Conservative voters want to see environmental action. It needn't be at odds with personal freedom or at great cost to the individual. There will be trade-offs, which will initially require a more active state than some are comfortable with. But it pales in comparison to the costs and demand for government intervention unchecked climate change would bring.
First published by the Guardian. Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.