Free-market liberals shouldn’t shy away from the climate debate

Jack Richardson

January 27, 2020

While Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have had great success grabbing the headlines and igniting the discussion about climate change, they are not great at offering genuine solutions. But rather than simply mocking them, those who support free markets and individual liberty should be putting forward their own arguments and policies for creating a sustainable world.

You can’t blame people for being frustrated with the lectures about “morality” or the Malthusian policies advocated by some parts of the left, which demand we essentially stop and reverse human progress. In retaliation against this, though, many who lean to the right are missing an open goal to dismantle the perceived monopoly many think the left has on the issue.

Human damage to our environment is a fact. It is a threat to our economic wellbeing and national security. Air pollution, for example, kills 64,000 people (affecting the poorest the most) and costs us tens of billions of pounds per year. It is undeniably a crisis.

But because those protesting the loudest can often be annoying by, say, stopping everyone else getting to work or declaring that meat-eaters are evil, a minority of commentators are now seeing any environmental policies, particularly reaching net zero, as some awful concession to the “woke” crowd that has to be stopped.

Rather than ignoring the underlying facts of the case being put forward by Extinction Rebellion and thinking that green is the new red, we should be putting our own positive case forward. Dig but a little further than the Twittersphere and it’s obvious that the environment is a debate we should be winning, yet all we’re left with is a group of people making lame jokes about vegans.

Reaching net zero is necessary to halt global temperature rises and increases in extreme weather. Theresa May was correct in deciding to commit to the 2050 target, and Boris Johnson is right to prioritise it. The most common arguments against it are that the UK only contributes one per cent of global emissions, so our efforts would be negligible, and that it will make us poorer. We should bin both of those arguments now.

Both not only completely ignore the facts but also the huge opportunities in achieving net zero and having high environmental standards. Environmental and economic sustainability are irreversibly intertwined. The UK is actually the best case study for this. Since 1990, we have enjoyed the fastest rates of decarbonisation and economic growth in the G20, cutting emissions by 43 per cent while growing the economy by two-thirds.

Much of that progress has been made in the past nine years. Coal has been nearly phased out while renewables have jumped from meeting six per cent of the UK’s electricity demand to 37 per cent. Wind is now our cheapest source of power, and the UK is home to seven of the 10 largest wind farms in Europe.

As we leave the European Union, we should become the Saudi Arabia of wind power, leading the next industrial revolution. As a very windy island with a large coastline, we possess the natural resources to specialise in the offshore wind sector as we do in finance.

It’s a great opportunity for British businesses, having been leaders on the deployment of renewable energy, to now export those products around the world as other countries move to net zero.

What could be more enticing to investors? Inflows to UK environmental, social and governance funds rose from £3bn to £10bn, not surprising given 64 per cent of British CEOs said that climate change was a danger to their business. BlackRock recently declared that it will be focusing plans for its $7tn worth of assets on environmental sustainability. Microsoft has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030.

The government knows this, which is why the budget in March is set to be a green one. MPs have said how much the environment came up on the doorstep during the general election campaign period and research shows that it’s now seen as a priority for the public, as much as crime and the NHS. It might have risen up the agenda because of the drama of Extinction Rebellion’s London protests. Rather than trying to resist that, the Conservative party needs to be providing the answers and seeking to lead the debate on its own terms.

The left is completely wrong when it says that the only way to fight climate change is to dismantle capitalism and build vast new state-controlled structures. You simply cannot fight this battle without the power of the free market and its ability to drive technological innovation and deliver results at the lowest cost to the consumer.

We must work with the market to become more environmentally sustainable. That is the way to bring prosperity, jobs and higher standards of living to the whole country, which is the perfect route to “levelling up” Britain. Indeed, a green industrial revolution is vital to ushering in change across Labour’s old red wall – and a great way to show the people who put their trust in the Conservative party for the first time in generations that the government is listening.

It is worth remembering that Margaret Thatcher was the first world leader to call for concerted action on climate change. Environmentalism and conservation are a natural part of the conservative philosophy, as is delivering economic prosperity and jobs. We need to change the conversation from being about activist antics and show that we are the ones who can deliver the solutions.


Written by Jack Richardson

Jack Richardson is Policy Coordinator at the Conservative Environment Network.


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