A transatlantic coalition of centre-right figures including Sir James Dyson, former M&S boss Sir Stuart Rose and Arnold Schwarzenegger today launches a damning environmental indictment of Conservative politicians around the world.
Arguing that the environment has traditionally been the preserve of the conservative parties, the coalition says right wing parties have neglected green issues in recent years and calls on them to reclaim the agenda from the political left.
The head of the coalition, Ben Goldsmith, warns that the neglect is so serious that the Tory party could lose the next UK election if it doesn’t come up with a grand plan to tackle “the great environmental crisis” – and says the “tools of competition and the free market” must play a leading role.
The coalition is led by the London-based Conservative Environment Network think tank and includes Education Secretary Michael Gove, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary.
“There are countless examples of major environmental problems that have been solved by Conservative thinkers and doers,” said Mr Goldsmith, chairman of the Conservative Environment Network and co-founder of WHEB, an investor in sustainable energy projects.
He says the UK Tory party has a rich history of placing “responsibility to future generations” at the heart of its politics and cites Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli and Margaret Thatcher as good examples of this tradition of conserving the environment.
Baroness Thatcher pushed hard for action to combat ozone depletion and climate change towards the end of her premiership, while other conservative politicians across the world have curbed acid rain, collapsing US fish stocks and the destruction of forest watersheds, Mr Goldsmith said.
“Yet today’s conservatives here, in the US, in Australia and elsewhere seem to have forgotten all of this. The upshot is that conservatives currently have little or no coherent narrative on how to response to this set of challenges and opportunities,” Mr Goldsmith said.
“Instead the right merely reacts with a standard kneejerk negative to the ideas of the political left in this area… Without a comprehensive, rational, optimistic plan for tackling the great environmental crisis, in a way that distinguishes cost from investment, the British Conservative Party will not be electable in 2015,” he added.
The consortium’s members come from business, politics and academia and are collectively worth about £120bn. They also include Professor Roger Scruton of Oxford University and James Wolfensohn, ex-president of the World Bank.
In a report out today, the group argues that, far from being a drain on the economy, greening the UK makes good business sense because it would encourage more efficient production, create new industries and jobs and reduce the costs associated with a damaged environment.
Sir Ian Cheshire, chief executive of B&Q-owner Kingfisher Group and a consortium member, criticised the UK government for sending “mixed signals” about its commitment to promoting green energy.
“The fact that companies alone can push through such ambitious and realistic plans is no excuse for the government to wash its hands of this agenda.
"Indeed inconsistent rhetoric has lately sent mixed signals which served to drain time, money and effort from [green] efforts – unsettling investors and threatening to destabilise green-growth opportunities,” he said.
Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, the consumer goods giant behind Marmite, PG Tips and Persil washing powder, added: “We recognise the role of policy and legislation in driving innovation but crave both policy certainty and clear signals, which aren’t undermined by calls to water down our ambition from those who believe that sustainability and growth are mutually exclusive.”
Mr Schwarzenegger argued that increasing the amount of power generated from renewable sources would increase energy security, while Sir James Dyson said: “Being environmentally conscious is not about accepting second best but allowing us to do more with less”.
“Industralised democracies have been in the terrible position of having to purchase oil from foreign countries. A more sustainable energy future would give us energy freedom,” he said.
The kind of market solutions the group proposes include cap-and-trade schemes that force companies to buy tradable permits for every ton of CO2 they emit above a set target and allow them to profit if they come in below target by selling their excess allowance to another company. A cap-and-trade scheme on sulphur dioxide emissions in the US worked well, leading to a dramatic reduction in acid rain. But an EU scheme to control carbon emissions is widely regarded to have been a failure because the EU miscalculated and gave out too many permits - in a mistake that was exacerbated by the reduction in emissions that resulted from the economic slowdown. As a result, many experts say the carbon price is so low that it is a negligible concern to the biggest polluters and has therefore only had a small impact.
The report notes that criticism but argues that the EU has reduced carbon emissions by 17 per cent against its 2012 mandated target of eight per cent.
Its drive to seize the environmental initiative was welcomed by campaign groups. Dr Douglas Parr, the policy director at Greenpeace UK said: “In the wake of the recent floods, the engagement of the centre-right with leaving a resilient environment for future generations is to be warmly welcomed.
“The report is right to stress that innovation and the scale of investment will require a central role for the private sector. However the absence of political will – for which the centre-right needs to take its share of responsibility - to design effective markets which genuinely price pollution and account for environmental costs means that we get markets like the EU Emissions Trading scheme which do not foster innovation, promote investment, or provide deployment incentives for new technology.
“Angela Merkel’s backing for the German renewable revolution and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s support for low carbon in California are a reminder that getting markets to work well requires a comprehensive approach applied with political determination as well as a focus on promotion of new technology.”
Bob Ward, policy director at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Institute, said: “This is an important intervention by mainstream conservatives from the UK and United States, and should challenge the rather extreme rhetoric from fringe groups, such as UKIP and the Tea Party, which have unfortunately degraded the quality of political debate about climate change and other environmental issues on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Dr Robert Gross, director of the Centre for Energy Policy at Imperial College, said: “It's welcome that the centre right wants to stake a claim on environmental policy. But I think it's false to argue that either the right or the left is 'better' at environmental policy.
“With the possible exception of the extreme right, politicians of all colours have brought in green policies. 'What works' comes down to pragmatism - what appeals to investors, what suits a product or market, not the politics. More often politics undermines investment. It creates risk,” he said.
Paul Morling, chief economist at the RSPB, said: “There should be no presumption in favour of the ‘tools of competition’, only a presumption in favour of what works best. Few, if any, major environmental improvements in the UK have been achieved in the absence of regulation. Market based approaches have a role to play but most, like cap and trade, biodiversity offsets or Payment for Ecosystem Service schemes simply won’t work without effective legislative backing.”