CLIMATE CHANGE

3rd May 2019

You do not set out to half-win a war, nor a general election. Neither do sensible people head to the pub to half-finish a pint.

As the government’s climate advisors reminded us this week, we cannot half-solve climate change, either. Britain has been systematically reducing greenhouse gas emissions for a quarter of a century, even as our economy has expanded and international trade grown. But the science is very clear: reducing emissions will not halt the progress of climate change. Only a complete end to emissions can do that.

The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that Britain end its contribution to climate change within a human generation, by moving to a net zero economy by 2050. “Net zero”, because we cannot eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions, so we must absorb from the air what we cannot avoid emitting, using trees and technologies.

Contrary to what the idle observer may presume, hardly anyone disagrees. The CBI, in addition to individual companies from Unilever to BT, backs a swift move to net zero. So do 70 per cent of the public. The National Farmers’ Union wants zero-emission farming a decade earlier.

In Westminster, nearly 200 MPs from all political parties have joined me in publicly urging the prime minister to set a net zero target. The only disagreement comes from those who would like a date before 2050.

What a remarkable turnaround from the situation just a few years ago, when many on my own benches were fond of warning that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would come galloping across Westminster Bridge the moment we connected a wind turbine or an electric car to the national grid.

What has turned it around is, I believe, a perfect brew of three ingredients. The impacts of climate change are indisputably with us now. Last year’s summer broiled, from the rice fields of Japan to the sugar beet fields of East Anglia, and climate change was its driver. Wildfires north of the Arctic Circle, disintegrating glaciers, migrating animals; the evidence is unarguable.

Secondly, economics. When the price of contracts for offshore wind power halves in two years, who can argue, sensibly, for coal and gas? One of the most intriguing ingredients of the committee’s report was that in some areas, the new is cheaper than the old; the swifter the transition to electric motoring, it concluded, the better for the UK economy.

Lastly, politics. The British public is concerned about climate change, approves of renewable energy and cutting energy waste by a huge margin, and wants us to solve the problem. Young Greta Thunberg speaks not for Sweden’s youth but for all young people; my generation has to do better.

So, my conclusion and my advice to the government, and to the Conservative Party, is: accept the advice of the experts, acknowledge the will of the people and get on with it. If stopping climate change means ending greenhouse gas emissions, and if analysis shows it will not be costly and might even bring economic benefits, let us just do it.

Making Britain a net zero nation would not markedly change our lives. We would drive different cars, and heat our homes using different forms of energy; nothing to give us nightmares there. All of our electricity would come from wind turbines, solar panels and nuclear reactors: few of us would notice the difference. We may eat a bit less meat and cheese — doubtless good for us, and if we did find the fare a mite less satisfying we could always go for a walk in the added expanse of woodland planted to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. For the nation that rebuilt after the Blitz and nationalisation, this is small beer.

As Conservatives, we should want this future. But even those few remaining in our ranks who still choose to ignore scientific and economic evidence can surely see a solid political rationale looming in the rear-view window of their electric four-by-four. The rationale is that if we do not promise a swift transition to a net-zero economy, Jeremy Corbyn will. And with our party already fractured by Brexit, that promise will win him voters.

Many nations are moving to a net zero economy. Norway and Sweden, France and New Zealand, Iceland and Spain; perhaps less expectedly, Fiji, Costa Rica and Uruguay. If we believe our rhetoric about global leadership, then logically we should be in the vanguard, cementing new international alliances and creating opportunities for UK Clean plc as we go.

Winston Churchill did not leave jobs half done. As a result, we have had 75 years of peace and democracy in Europe. Neither did Margaret Thatcher, my first prime minister, who faced down both the unions and General Galtieri against unpromising odds.

Climate change is the great battle of our times, but fighting it is a far easier task than those two faced. The government should accept the committee’s advice and set a net zero target in law before the end of the summer. We have no excuse for not finishing the job.

Published in The Times