It’s time for conservatives to lead on climate change

In the UK, climate change has traditionally been seen as an issue most closely aligned with the left – perhaps not surprising given that many proposed measures for tackling climate change involve large scale state involvement, significant restriction on business activity and limits to individual consumption. Under Theresa May, this started to change, but a new Government means the trajectory for UK climate policy remains uncertain. By failing to take radical action on climate change and allowing Labour to claim the issue as their own, the conservatives would be missing an opportunity to take action to safeguard the UK economy, and to win much needed support amongst young people.

Labour and Conservative’s reputations

In response to rising public pressure, Theresa May’s Government went some way towards closing the perceived gap between Labour and the Conservatives’ reputations on climate change. Michael Gove transformed DEFRA into a serious political force, launching a number of initiatives such as a ban on single use plastics, then Chancellor Phillip Hammond introduced a tax on plastic bags, and May committed the Government to a Net Zero carbon emissions target by 2050.

‘Absolute core’ 

However, it is as yet unclear whether the new Ministers will continue this work. Despite a record of voting against measures to reduce climate change, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that climate change is at the ‘absolute core’ of his Government. Johnson appointed Theresa Villiers as Environment Secretary, who has similarly stated her commitment to addressing the issue. However, she remains in favour of fracking and has previously voted against bills to commit to higher carbon emissions reduction targets. Similarly, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom has previously been sceptical of climate change, but claims to now be “completely persuaded”, and said in a May 2019 interview with The House magazine that she supported the declaration of a climate emergency. Labour have already warned that the Government is on course to miss it’s net zero target, and has gone further, calling for the Government to reach net zero emissions by 2030.

Widespread demonstrations

In response to the widespread demonstrations by protest group Extinction Rebellion in April 2019, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion to a declare climate emergency, while Boris Johnson criticised the protesters for “paralysing public transport in the greatest city on earth” and suggested they target China instead. Johnson’s government would be missing a trick to allow Labour to continue to lead the debate.

The Conservative party is polling at just 17% amongst under 35s – a group for which climate change is a key priority, and a growing bank of evidence suggests failure to address rising temperatures could cost the UK the equivalent of 5% of GDP each year.

Cross-party Issue

Tackling climate change is a cross-party issue – after all, it was Margaret Thatcher (the political hero of many in the cabinet) who initially helped raise the profile of environmental issues, through passing of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and   ratification of the Montreal Protocol on preserving the ozone, and who argued that capitalism provided sound solutions to the issue of climate change. Rather than simply responding to demands, the Conservatives must take bold action and lead the agenda. Through investing in renewable and clean energies, ensuring the UK meets existing carbon reduction targets, and is a leader in ratifying new international agreements, they can ensure they deliver on Johnson’s pledge to put climate change at the heart of his government.

See more articles by Caitlin Wilkinson