There’s a new kid on the block in UK politics. Climate change and the demand for radical, green policies has burst onto the political stage and into our discourse in recent weeks. This has been driven by the Extinction Rebellion protests which took over London in a huge display of civil disobedience, capturing the eye of the media and dominating the debate as MPs returned from recess.
Research by Greenpeace found that two-thirds of people in the UK recognise there is a climate emergency, and 76 per cent say they would cast their vote differently to protect the planet. Once Brexit has been dealt with (or kicked sufficiently into the long grass), and as parties begin posturing for a general election, will climate change feature as a primary focus of the Conservative Party’s agenda?
Labour have already staked their ground. Keen to talk about anything but Brexit and focus on bashing the Tories on austerity, Labour have linked their green policies to their narrative of protecting workers and ensuring fair outcomes. Labour’s headline economic policies – such as nationalisation – are also underpinned by a criticism that companies are not doing enough to protect the environment.
Tackling climate change with a radical shift towards a clean, green economy fits perfectly into Labour’s narrative, but it is less of a natural fit with the Conservative’s.
Yes, the government’s Road to Zero, Clean Growth and Industrial Strategies outline an ambition and roadmap to follow, signposted by big policies such as banning petrol and diesel cars, and marked by achievements such as the UK running without coal for a week for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. But despite this, they are constantly criticised for not doing enough. The Committee on Climate Change, the government’s official climate adviser, found that current policies are not sufficient to meet existing targets – never mind their new recommendation of net-zero emissions by 2050. 16-year old climate activist and de-facto leader of the new climate movement, Greta Thunberg, also accused the government of “creative carbon accounting” by excluding certain emissions in headline figures.
The Conservatives have never been the party of the environment but, in their time in government, they have certainly now shored up some green credentials – or at least they have a policy record to talk about on the campaign trail. The swell of public attention to climate change, the fragility of the Conservative government, and Labour’s strong, radical alternative, might force a change of tack from the Conservatives.
Ideologically, the Conservatives are simply not willing to intervene in the market with a heavy hand, something climate change activists are calling out for. However, as there has been a growing recognition that markets are not working for consumers, regulation has increasingly become a feature of Theresa May’s government – particularly around consumer protection. Will the next focus of regulation be on markets not working for the environment?
With May’s leadership on a knife edge, the next leader will decide how the party handles the climate question. Reusable coffee cup in hand, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has overhauled his image with a stream of initiatives coming out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Despite criticism that these policies were tokenistic, Gove has proved his political ability in navigating the Brexit-dominated arena and the Treasury’s austerity spending constraints to push relatively substantive policies out of his department. If Gove, currently standing at 8/1, becomes the next leader he will no-doubt capitalise on this with the environment featuring as a main item of his platform. It is also likely Gove could throw his weight behind another leadership candidate and become an eco-warrior Chancellor – if he doesn’t get distracted.
As for the other candidates (bearing in mind most Conservative MPs have thrown their hat into the ring already) this is less clear. Liz Truss, zealous advocate of the free market, would be unlikely to suggest massive state intervention on behalf of the environment but other, more moderate, Conservatives may rethink intervention and regulation’s role in managing climate change. More broadly, newly promoted Rory Stewart is a proponent of considering climate change in development aid funding – an interest also held by grassroots favourite Boris Johnson. As the leadership contest gains pace, we’re sure to find out more.
With climate change now integral to our political discourse and championed by opposition parties, the Conservative Party will be forced to respond out of political necessity. However, they will certainly face a challenge in balancing a green vision with the pro-market beliefs which underpin their ideology.
But what does this mean for business? While this debate hots up, businesses must demonstrate how they are already facilitating the shift to a carbon-free future and acting in the common interest. In many ways this is already happening, but, as public and political pressure ramps up, businesses are certain to be in the spotlight.
Businesses should capitalise on this new-found momentum to put pressure on government to acknowledge the challenges they face. Those with climate friendly policies and breakthrough technologies must clearly set out their role in enabling both parties’ future vision. Climate change is firmly on the agenda, businesses must adapt or face interventions of varying proportions from across the political spectrum.