On Tuesday morning I was sat around the cabinet table inside No.10 opposite the Prime Minister.
For the avoidance of doubt, you didn’t miss something in the recent ‘mini’ reshuffle; I was there with a small delegation of colleagues from the Conservative Environment Network.
Rishi Sunak asked me in to talk frankly – over breakfast – about our environment and climate policies as we move the UK economy towards net zero.
This government has a strong record on emissions reduction. UK emissions are now 49% below 1990 levels, while the economy has grown 75% over the same period. Economic growth and climate action can go hand in hand.
As the PM said, there is much more to do to get on track to net zero, but there are clear success stories that we should champion: for example the proportion of our electricity generated by renewables has increased sevenfold since 2010.
And thanks to the UK’s presidency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 90% of the world’s economy is now covered by a 2050 net zero target, up from 30% before the UK took on the COP presidency.
This Government made the UK the first country in the world to set a legal duty to halt the decline of nature by 2030. The passage of the 2021 Environment Act I voted for, in the face of Labour and Liberal opposition, marked a watershed for legal protections on nature, setting binding targets to tackle air pollution, reduce waste and, yes, improve water quality. Never done before, including by the coalition Government of 2010-2015.
Similarly, the Agriculture Act kick-started England’s transition away from awarding inefficient direct payments to farmers towards rewarding more nature-friendly approaches to food production.
To date, the green economy has performed well and is now worth more than £70 billion to the UK. Net zero already supports nearly one million jobs, which pay around 30% higher than the national average.
Yet despite these successes, our government is in my opinion sending mixed signals about its environmental commitments. For example, Ministers have spent more time talking about new oil and gas licences – all consistent with our COP commitments for the record - than our policies for unlocking more clean energy investment.
This has led to concern from some green investors and contradictory signals are particularly harmful to the UK green economy at a time of rising interest rates, supply chain bottlenecks, and increased competition from the USA and the EU for green supply chain investment.
There is also an electoral imperative for continued leadership on the environment. The public has consistently ranked the environment as one of the top five issues facing the country since 2019 and I know many (not all I understand) constituents across Winchester and Chandler’s Ford agree.
We should develop a private investment-led alternative to Labour’s unfunded £28 billion green prosperity plan. Private finance can deliver the majority of the investment for net zero, but requires favourable tax and planning policies, and consistent policy frameworks, from the government.
We need further action, backed by local support and reward, on renewables as well as new grid capacity and – long overdue - a workable plan on home energy efficiency. We need a renewed push to make the 2030 switch away from petrol vehicles achievable and continued UK international leadership on the environment because we are a small country on our own.
As I said to the PM, every election is about the future versus the past. Young people in particular need to hear what we as a country have done and what ambition we have going forward.