Fifty Shades of Green: Conservative Policy and the Environment

Posted on March 26, 2018 in The Grantham Scholars' Blog, Comment, Scholar comment by . Share this article

In the piece I wrote back in November, the Tories were just launching their green initiative, supported by white papers. Considering the national news coverage Michael Gove’s (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) blitz on animal rights caused, along with Labour’s push to go further on animal rights, I couldn’t help but feel there is part of environmental policy missing from discussion. What happened to the work of Claire Perry – Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth – on energy policy from the BEIS?

I tend to see ‘green’ policy in a series of different shades. I see Gove’s environmental policy as a clear fresh green (think late spring deciduous forests – the crisp ring of bird song and crunching leaf litter) and maybe a little seasonal. Alternatively, I view energy policy and market reform a deep, dark green (think winter coniferous forests – resinous aroma and soft needle carpet).

Will a lighter shade of green do the job?

Gove has been bringing forward this brighter green policy. For example: he has been pushing the extension of the plastic bag charge to all stores, supporting plastic free supermarket aisles, pointing out that Brexit would facilitate the banning of live animal exports, and planting woodlands. These policies have clear and obvious local benefits. They are appealing in an immediate sense, who doesn’t want more forests? Stopping plastic being pumped into the local environment very quickly makes a difference to the local area, as it mitigates parks covered in litter which we locals notice quickly. Tree planting projects are similarly effective at delivering local change. Unsurprisingly the public find these policies easy to engage with: you’d have to work very hard to get a poll that opposed delittering parks.

These local changes are very popular and the benefits such as a cleaner local environment are great. However, the impact of such policies is individually very limited on global CO2 emissions. For a sense of scale, Britain aims to add 6000km2 of forest over the next 40 years (by 2060 this is 20% increase, so a substantial goal). Brazil, by comparison, in 2010-2015 may well have lost getting on for twice this amount.

To tackle climate change, a different shade green is required: policies like public subsidies for low carbon power or carbon pricing/tariffs which are the responsibility of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The colour of these changes is much darker. SMART meter installation and investment in green industries leave most people approving if slightly nonplussed as to how it works.  You can’t see C02 emissions dropping: you don’t get the equivalent of the locally (or nationally) visible movements like Sheffield Trees Action Group (STAG) about the likely national failure to reach CO2 targets. The facts is that greens (small g) in Sheffield are talking about local trees rather than national CO2 targets. However, over the years we have had steady substantial benefits from national heating schemes in reducing heating use, and by knock on, CO2 emissions. No one sees this collectively. To me knowing the national picture is moving in the right direction somehow reminds me of a deep coniferous green. 

Neither the government or conservative media are devoting time to trying to address the issue. Perry walks around these days soldered (or possibly a more environmentally friendly adhesive) to the Clean Growth Strategy. This document contains to the government’s goals to make being green a UK tech export and to hit climate targets. Measures include seed funding and regulation adjustments.

These various shades of green seem to be at very least not opposed, if not actively supported by the Blue voters. A study for the Green Conservatism project in the Bright Blue think-tank shows that over 50% of Blue voters support various measures regardless of category (support is stronger in cities with younger voters as you might expect).

Whilst green things might not be the first thought on their minds at the polling station, many voters are clearly receptive to the clean fresh green Gove, the question to me whether the party’s messaging will feature the climate green of Perry at BEIS is another matter. If Gove’s drive remains the key plank of featured work by the government, any work by Perry will remain unpraised.

This means when another minister takes over Perry’s legacy will diminish and we’ll be left with a deciduous forest alone. They are known to be seasonal. Environmental policy can be indeed be seasonal as hot topics are addressed. Climate policy moves slower and isn’t so interesting but there is a constant elegance to correctly implemented solutions.