Theresa May's environment speech: A 10 point green economy wish-list

James Murray
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Theresa May's environment speech: A 10 point green economy wish-list

Here, completely unsolicited, are some pointers on what could and should be included in potentially historic speech

Assuming the lobby briefing is correct - and this week's reshuffle has tested that assumption past breaking point - Prime Minister Theresa May will tomorrow give her first major speech on the environment.

As her team put the finishing touches to the speech is worth asking what will it contain and what should it contain? After all there is not much historic precedent for May to fall back on.

David Cameron may have embraced the green agenda while in opposition, but once in office he only spoke about the green economy when forced to do so at PMQs or when safely overseas. The one exception to this rule was a bizarre episode when he delivered an address at an energy efficiency conference, only for Number 10 to point blank refuse to release the transcript of the speech he was blatantly reading. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were both broadly supportive of climate action and environmental measures, but big domestic set-piece green speeches were even rarer than the biodiversity that continued to decline on their watch.

Following the travails of the past few days and months, this affords May the opportunity to not only set the agenda, but make a massively important, perhaps even historic intervention. She is, after all, about to give a speech about the gravest long term challenge and greatest economic opportunity facing this country and the world as a whole. There is no point under-selling it.

But what should May include in her speech as she seeks to revive her government's flagging reputation and highlight the genuinely impressive progress that has been made on environmental issues in recent months? The temptation will be to safely stick to trailing the promised launch of Defra's 25 Year Plan for Nature, but that would represent a serious missed opportunity. Here, completely unsolicited, are 10 pointers on what should be included in an ambitious environmental vision from the PM:

1. Get the context right and don't pull any punches

There is no point in talking about the environment and not explaining why we need to talk about the environment.

May should use her platform to make it plain that the last time concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions were as high as they are now, sea levels were 20 metres higher than current levels (that is not a typo, it will take millennia to deliver such drastic sea level increases, but that is the assumed equilibrium for current emissions concentrations).

She should warn well over a metre of sea level rise in the lifetime of a child today is entirely plausible. She should say future MPs could be elected to the constituency of Cambridge-on-Sea. She should admit that many of the scientists who analyse climate risks are actively terrified by their conclusions. She should talk about the epidemic levels of biodiversity loss in the UK and overseas, of the refugee crisis that would come with the collapse of Tropical ecosystems, of the air pollution that is choking our school yards.

There is a school of thought that political leaders will never be rewarded for painting an apocalyptic vision of the future. But this has to be weighed against the fact the British Prime Minister is one of a small band of people with the  platform to raise the alarm bell we all need to hear. We have just a handful of years left to deliver steep global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The time for political niceties is long gone.

2. Make the economic case for climate action

This is the easy part, not least because May has already done it in her speech at the One Planet Summit in Paris last month and the foreword to the government's Clean Growth Strategy. Those dual interventions majored on the way in which the UK has cut emissions deeply in recent years while still growing its economy, touted the impressive growth of the UK green economy, and hymned the potential of clean tech innovation.

Any environment speech needs to repeat this trick, making copious use of the inspiring clean tech start-ups and green infrastructure projects that are already transforming the UK economy and creating hundreds of thousands of well paid jobs in the process.

May needs to make it clear that with wind and solar costs having more than halved in a blink of an eye and storage and electric vehicle costs plummeting, decarbonisation has become the default option for large parts of the economy. She needs to stress that green growth is a business-friendly policy backed by the vast majority of the world's leading companies. In short, she needs to slay the myths that environmental action is an anti-growth agenda.

3. Make the Conservative case for climate action

This part is slightly harder, as some Tories still don't want to hear it. However, there is a long tradition of Conservative leadership on environmental issues, including Margaret Thatcher's championing of action on climate change, the long-standing advocacy of Lords Deben and Howard, and the current government's coal phase out.

May should place herself firmly within this tradition and deliver unequivocal condemnation of the reckless stance taken by her climate sceptic allies, both in Westminster and the White House. She has shown little willingness to stand up to the headbangers in her party to date, but there is political capital to be gained from finally doing so.

4. Ditch the 'Maybot'

May's weaknesses as a public speaker are well documented, but if you can't speak passionately and engagingly about the environment on which we all depend there really is no point taking the stage in the first place.

The Prime Minister needs to deliver a speech that both raises awareness of the scale of the environmental risks we face and engenders excitement about the prospect for green national renewal. It is a tall order, but it can be done.

It would be a bold strategy, but I'd like to see the Prime Minister admit she is scared, that she is kept awake at night by the environmental threats she is briefed on (if this isn't the case she clearly hasn't been listening hard enough in the chief scientist's presentations). I'd then like to see her declare explicitly that her government's defining long term mission is to build a green and sustainable low carbon economy. Referencing Blue Planet 2 as shorthand for 'I really care about animals, me' is not going to cut it.

5. Defend the record

It has taken May's particular brand of reverse political alchemy to create the widely held impression that the Tories are indifferent or hostile to environmental issues, when Conservative-led governments have over the past seven years helped to deliver a torrent of emission reduction, renewables, and green investment records.

Yes, from plastic bag levies to clean energy investment the Lib Dems played a crucial role in driving many of these achievements. Meanwhile, the Conservative government slashed spending on energy efficiency and privatised the Green Investment Bank. But the current government has delivered full throated backing for the Paris Agreement, pioneered the coal phase out plan, imposed the microbead ban, and backed offshore wind, new nuclear, and electric vehicles to the hilt. May should not back away from defending her record.

6. But don't gloss over the inconsistencies

At the same time an environment speech that simply offered bromides on how great everything is going would have a serious credibility problem.

May has to engage with the legitimate criticism of her climate policy programme and either explain it or promise to rectify it. She should provide more detail on how the government is going to beef up energy efficiency policy, and ideally explain why it wants to water down new rules for landlords. She should explain once and for all why the cheapest forms of new energy generation - onshore wind and solar farms - are being blocked when the planning system is perfectly well equipped to stop inappropriately sited projects. She should explain how a new runway at Heathrow is compatible with climate goals and what the government is doing to help curb aviation emissions. She should explain why the government wants to build a new fracking industry when we need to switch to cleaner sources of fuel as a matter of urgency. She should explain why it took Blue Planet 2 for the government to realise its circular economy and waste strategies were a mess.

Better still, she should promise to rectify all these glaring inconsistencies. 

7. Be honest - this isn't a painless process.

The benefits of the green economy far outweigh the costs, but that does not mean the transition will be painless. May needs to acknowledge there will be losers as well as winners from the green industrial revolution and provide early reassurances that the government will work with high carbon industries and communities to help them adapt.

She needs to make it clear there is a place for well designed regulation and levies to protect our shared environmental resources.

She also needs to publicly recognise how the unerring logic of the carbon bubble means investment must divert away from carbon intensive activities at a rate of knots or risk fuelling a financial crisis. An honest engagement with these hard truths is of far more value than an ill-informed attempt to ignore them.

8. Confirm it is Green Brexit or no Brexit

Michael Gove's plan to reform farming subsidies to incentivise the delivery of environmental benefits and his assertion the UK will engineer a 'Green Brexit' are both hugely welcome, but they also face significant challenges. The powerful farming lobby will no doubt push back against parts of the plan and some members of May's own Cabinet seem less than enthused at the prospect of stronger environmental protections post-Brexit.

The Prime Minister should use her speech to fully endorse Gove's vision and provide stronger reassurances that the Withdrawal Bill will be amended to ensure adequate environmental protections really do remain in place. The 25 Year Plan for Nature should categorically confirm that a genuinely 'Green Brexit' is non-negotiable.

9. Be populist

One of the great mysteries of the Conservative Party's engagement with green issues in recent years has been the failure to recognise quite how popular they are. Support for renewables can top 80 per cent, support for fracking is subterranean, fox hunting remains electoral kryptonite in marginals up and down the country.

More importantly a pro-green agenda is a pro-business agenda. The knee-jerk tribal desire to cut 'red tape' in response to every economic challenge is no longer endorsed by most savvy businesses. When she was first elected May understood this, she needs to demonstrate that she understands it again.

From green ISAs to improved energy efficiency programmes, from tougher rules on landlords to community clean energy projects, from diesel scrappage schemes to tree planting programmes, there are a host of popular green policies May could and should announce.

10. Go all in - a plastic bottle levy won't cut it, either environmentally or politically. 

The big fear surrounding this speech is it won't go much beyond May's interview with Andrew Marr and her insistence that something needs to be done about single use plastics.

A new plastic bottle deposit scheme or latte levy would be welcome, but it is hardly commensurate to the scale of the challenge or the opportunity. May needs to be much bolder and provide both ambitious policy measures and a sweeping vision for what a decarbonised economy looks like. She needs to commit to zero carbon power and zero emission road transport, but she also needs to sketch out a vision for how the UK can, over the course of a few decades, decarbonise heat and industry and aviation and shipping and agriculture, and boost resource efficiency and biodiversity in the process. She also needs to explain how such a drastic transformation would benefit the health, wealth, security and happiness of the nation.

There are sound economic and environmental reasons for such a vision, but there are also sound political ones. The Conservative Party is clearly pushing hard to be bolster its green credentials, but with a topic as all-encompassing and existential as the environment there is little credit to be gained from welcome but incremental improvements, such as cracking down on plastics.

In fact, such measures simply invite your political opponents to highlight failures in other areas, such as onshore wind farms or fossil fuel tax breaks. Expecting to build a green reputation with one or two environmental policies is a bit like expecting credit because you managed to find one or two hospitals where ambulances aren't queuing at the door.

Any credible environmental strategy and any credible environmental speech needs to promise full spectrum action to tackle the biggest risk and the largest opportunity facing the UK. That is what the Prime Minister should say.

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