Sam Hall

2021: A major year for the environment

To any conservatives reading this, I hope you join us. This year of environmental action is too important to leave to the left. Now is the time for conservatives to reclaim their heritage as the original conservationists. We owe it to the next generation to step up.

Last year was supposed to be the year of environmental action, but Covid-19 had other plans. Instead of concerted international progress on tackling the twin crises of nature loss and climate change, governments have been overwhelmed responding to a worst-in-a-century global pandemic. But these environmental threats haven’t gone away. This year governments need to put the environment centre stage. Conservatives in particular - with their belief in intergenerational equity and their preference for market-based solutions - will have a critical role to play.

During the Covid lockdowns, we’ve seen temporary falls in greenhouse gas emissions as travel was dramatically curtailed and some industrial activity stopped. We’ve also seen people reconnecting with nature through more frequent walks in local green spaces, the vibrance of unmown grass verges, and the clarity of birdsong in the absence of traffic.

Yet the pandemic has for the most part made it harder to take action on the environment. Covid has distracted political attention, made international environmental negotiations harder to conduct, depleted the fiscal resources of finance ministries around the world, and through increased uncertainty and cash flow challenges has prevented much of the private sector from investing in green solutions. There is no lasting upside for the environment.

The best hope for environmental progress now lies in the nature of our recovery. The need to kickstart our battered economies and create jobs after months of rolling lockdowns and social distancing can be married with the need to invest in clean technologies and natural assets in order to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

There is clear economic evidence in support of a green recovery. A study by academics from Oxford University found that green stimulus projects offer better economic returns for governments than conventional investments. Another study by LSE economists found that investment in green initiatives in the UK such as energy efficiency improvements would deliver both job creation and progress towards our net zero target. 

Unlike environmentalists who believe in the necessity of degrowth in order to preserve natural resources and prevent the breaching of ‘planetary boundaries’, conservative environmentalists have long argued that economic growth and environmental stewardship can go hand in hand. This argument was accepted by several European countries in the first wave of economic support, with the UK Government committing £3 billion to insulate homes and public buildings and its German counterpart releasing €9 billion to deliver their clean hydrogen strategy.

Now as ministers consider the next round of Covid recovery packages, green projects must once again be prioritised. In particular, governments must focus on unleashing the wall of private capital waiting to invest in clean, green industries. Tax incentives, investible mechanisms like contracts for difference (which the UK uses for offshore wind), and targeted regulation could all help to drive much needed investment into climate solutions and green job creation, without over-burdening the taxpayer.

As conservatives we believe we have a duty to hand on to future generations an environment which is in a better condition than we inherited it. As things stand, there can be little doubt that we are failing in this responsibility.

Against this backdrop we now look ahead to this year as the world’s best chance to bend the arc on climate change and biodiversity loss. As conservatives we believe we have a duty to hand on to future generations an environment which is in a better condition than we inherited it. As things stand, there can be little doubt that we are failing in this responsibility.

Biodiversity is declining at alarming rates. Last year’s WWF living planet report shows an average 68% decrease in the global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish between 1970 and 2016. Seventy-five percent of the Earth’s ice-free land surface has already been significantly altered, most of the oceans are polluted, and more than 85% of the area of wetlands has been lost. The previous year, a UN report discovered that up to one million species are on the verge of extinction. Globally we have failed to fully achieve every biodiversity target that nearly 200 national governments agreed to in 2010.

This is worrying - not only because future generations may not be able to experience the beauty and majesty of some of our iconic, critically endangered megafauna, such as rhinos and elephants, but also because we are destroying the biodiversity and ecosystems upon which our very survival as a species depends. From the provision of food and medicines, to the regulation of our climate and drinking water, we need nature and we have to arrest, and reverse, its precipitous decline.

At the same time, we see the impacts of climate change materialising to an ever greater extent. During the Covid pandemic many of us will have felt as though the world was metaphorically on fire, but in fact many parts of the world from California to Australia were actually on fire. And what’s more scientists have found such wildlifes are at least in part made more likely by climate change. The Arctic ice sheet shrunk to its second lowest level in four decades last summer due to record high temperatures observed in the Arctic Circle.

Despite this, we are still set to miss the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Even with China’s very welcome 2060 net zero goal, which will reduce the average global temperature rise by around a quarter of a degree by the end of the century compared to the previous baseline, the world is on track for well over two degrees of warming. Unless strengthened, current national pledges would see a hit to global GDP of up to $600 trillion by the end of this century due to rising temperatures, higher sea levels, more flooding, and a range of other damaging climate impacts.

Furthermore, the climate and biodiversity problems are interrelated. One of the biggest drivers of climate change is the destruction of carbon-rich habitats, such as forests and wetlands. Similarly, one of the most important drivers of biodiversity loss is the changing climate, which is rapidly altering ecosystems by increasing the range of pests and diseases. Other environmentally damaging activities, such as unsustainable development and agriculture, also contribute to both problems through the destruction of natural habitats and emissions of greenhouse gases.

 2021 has to be the year where we turn this around. There are two big UN conferences coming up. The first summit - the fifthteenth annual meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity being hosted in China - will agree a new framework for protecting and restoring biodiversity, including hopefully ambitious new targets.  The second - the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which the UK is hosting in Glasgow - will take place more than five years after the landmark Paris Agreement and is an opportunity to bring countries’ national climate plans in line with the temperature goals.

These summits provide an opportunity for the UK and the EU to work together post-Brexit on a vital shared strategic priority - the environment. Since both have ambitious environmental targets in place covering their own jurisdictions, they can lead ‘high-ambition coalitions’ to push for greater international action. Successful outcomes will depend on both the UK and EU making climate and biodiversity diplomatic priorities in bilateral meetings with other governments.

Conservatives across Europe have a particularly important role to play this year on the environment. They must be at the forefront of developing and advocating environmental policies that harness the innovative and efficient capacity of the private sector, while generating jobs and economic growth to power our recovery from Covid-19. International targets and frameworks are important for setting the direction and driving collective action. Conservatives should work together in these international fora in support of ambitious outcomes.

But delivery must take place at the national level, where a focus on conservative approaches will be vital. And conservatives have a lot to learn from each other on climate change. Whether it is market-friendly climate policies developed in conservative think tanks, or actual climate programmes being designed and implemented by conservative governments, we need to share these ideas and inspire one another into raising our ambition on climate change.

In this context, one area of mutual interest for conservatives in both the UK and the EU will be carbon border adjustment taxes. This mechanism allows countries to make ambitious domestic climate policies without putting their own industries at a competitive disadvantage. It would mean that domestic carbon taxes are refunded on exports to enable our goods to compete in export markets, and they are levied on imports to ensure that goods produced overseas in countries without adequate climate policies can’t undercut our own more climate-friendly producers.

They provide an incentive for other countries to introduce their own system of carbon pricing, and end the ability of countries to engage in ‘regulatory arbitrage’ whereby businesses can compete purely on the basis of the strength of the regulations or carbon prices in their jurisdiction, rather than on legitimate comparative advantage. Put simply, carbon border adjustment taxes are a way to stop carbon leakage - i.e. the movement of industrial activities away from Europe towards developing countries with weaker rules on emissions. They will also be a useful revenue stream for finance ministries looking to pay down Covid-related deficits while delivering environmental policy priorities.

Carbon border adjustment taxes are a key priority of the European Commission, while ministers from the UK have indicated their interest too. By working together at the World Trade Organisation and other international fora to demonstrate the feasibility and legality of this mechanism, and by developing our domestic policies in tandem, the UK and EU could create a powerful market-based incentive for global decarbonisation.

Another shared interest is farm subsidy reform. Globally, farm subsidies are worth $600 billion per year - in order to support domestic food production. Yet they have a great number of negative effects: they distort the trade in food products, harming developing countries; they burden taxpayers with poor value-for-money spending; they generally disadvantage smaller farmers; in many cases, they encourage agricultural intensification and land conversion, exacerbating environmental harms; and they can slow agricultural productivity improvements.

Reforming farm subsidies, therefore, is essential for tackling the climate and biodiversity crises, for making markets and international trade freer, and for cutting wasteful public spending. Post-Brexit, the UK is committed to a radical departure from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), ending the system of area-based payments and instead using public money to deliver environmental public goods such as carbon sequestration and habitat creation. Meanwhile, the EU is set to implement only incremental reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy for the next budget period. While some new environmental elements are being added to the scheme, the vast majority of the support will continue to fund area-based payments.

European conservatives should look to the UK in this area, and UK conservatives should have the courage to follow through with their radical reforms. This is a policy with potentially huge global significance, which should be held up at the upcoming UN environment summits. Farm subsidy reform can create vital revenue streams to unlock investment at scale in nature-based solutions to climate change such as forests. Similarly, they can ensure that rural communities in developing countries grow their agricultural sectors in a sustainable way that works in harmony with the environment.

Conservative environmentalists have much more to offer besides - from using auctions to buy new low-carbon power or ecosystem services, to liberalising international trade in environmental goods and services. The environment has often been seen - wrongly - as a left-wing issue. And those on the left like to claim that only a massive expansion in state spending and ownership of the economy can solve climate change.

2021 must be the year when conservative environmentalists prove them wrong. As the Conservative Environment Network, we will be bringing together conservatives from around the world to discuss and champion action on the environment. We’ve already begun linking up conservatives in the UK with their counterparts in the US and Australia, and building a coalition on the centre-right in favour of ambitious, pro-market environmental policies. We want to reach out to more conservatives in Europe and beyond before the UN climate summit in Glasgow later this year, hopefully culminating in a world-first ‘conservative climate action pledge’ signed by conservative legislators, local politicians, and thought-leaders.

To any conservatives reading this, I hope you join us. This year of environmental action is too important to leave to the left. Now is the time for conservatives to reclaim their heritage as the original conservationists. We owe it to the next generation to step up.

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