"Thank-you very much for that introduction and thank-you for inviting me to your green debate. It’s good to be here with the Green Alliance. As we’ve just said, tomorrow marks my first year as leader of the Conservative Party. I’ve said that there are moments when it’s felt like ten years, but nevertheless it has been a year, and I can’t think of a better place to celebrate that year than with you.
"The last year hasn’t been without some pain on the environmental front for me. I remember particularly the letter I had from one man who wrote to me saying, “if you care so much about climate change and carbon emissions, why don’t you stop breathing?”. There was the most remarkable event with my bicycle which I still ride at least once a week to work. Tomorrow will be the day as it’s Prime Minister’s Questions and it gets some air in my lungs. The report, and sadly it did happen – only once or twice and it will never happen again – that a chauffeur-driven car helped bring some papers to work. Someone actually sent me an email saying, “look, on a bicycle, with a trailer, it is amazing what you can carry - see the attached jpeg of me carrying a sofa on the trailer of my bicycle”. Perhaps that’s what Peter Melcher has done and that’s why he’s a little bit late tonight.
"I think the memory of the potential pain, although not actual pain, that will live in my mind, was on that trip to the Artic when we had to hitch up the huskies to our sleigh, and I was told that the first one you must get is a bitch on heat who must be kept separate from the other dogs. And the experience of taking a bitch on heat through a pack of sex-starved huskies in order to hitch them up to my sleigh makes Prime Minister’s Questions look like a complete tea party, I can tell you.
"But I think that in the last year, green issues, and climate change in particular, have moved from niche to mainstream, and I think that is hugely important in our country. And I would say it hasn’t just been words or photo opportunities, actually there are some commitments that pressure has actually brought out in the government, and I would say specifically that the fact there is a Climate Change Bill in the Queen’s Speech – yes, it will be an inadequate climate change bill, yes, it will need strengthening, yes, it will need amendment – but the fact that it is there is a credit to the fact that other political parties, including mine, have campaigned on it, and particularly all of you in the environmental movement united together and said that we needed a climate change bill.
"I think that the politics of this is also important. I’ve just said that commitments matter more, obviously, than words or photographs, but actually I think that in the last year, the Conservative party has helped to show that you can make green politics incredibly mainstream. The fact that we fought a local election campaign under the slogan of ‘vote blue, go green,’ and gave over all of our party election broadcasts, and a lot of our materials to issues like recycling and carbon emissions, at the time there were a lot of people in the Conservative party and outside the Conservative party who said to me “you’re mad to treat the environment as the number one issue in British politics – it isn’t”. But I said, and I feel deeply, that we can push it up the political agenda and that people will respond to it, and I think showing that you can make a political campaign work like that actually has a huge impact for the future.
"What I wanted to address in my remarks tonight is how we try to move what has become mainstream into what must become action. I think we have a great advantage in this country now that there is much more of a political consensus between the three major parties about the importance of these issues. And obviously the key to building on that consensus is making sure that even when in opposition, we are prepared to make, and accept, difficult decisions, about taxation, about regulation, about other areas. That will be the proof.
"But I think, and I want to discuss tonight, that there are five elements that we need to build in this country to have a political consensus that can deliver action on the environment and not just talk. I think that the first part of the consensus must be for our approach must be clearly based on facts and evidence.
"The evidence is so powerful that there is no need to overstate it. If you look at the figures recently – half a metre of sea level rise could actually wipe out one third of globally productive farmland in the world. The UN has recently talked about 200 million environmental refugees in the next few years. Closer to home, the figure I always use is that the Thames Barrier, which was meant to be lifted once every six years, is now being lifted more than six times a year. So we should base our consensus on evidence, and I think this is where the Stern Report is going to be so powerful and so useful for all the political parties. The other reason I think we need to base our approach on evidence is I think that there can be a danger in this debate of demonising or placing too much weight on particular sectors. It’s vital if we’re going to tackle climate change that we look at transport, we look at housing, we look at government, we look at electricity generation, and we look at business, and I think that singling out for too much attention either international travel or 4x4s – actually the evidence won’t support that sort of approach. So we must look at all of the sectors, we must build a consensus, based on evidence.
"The second element of our consensus must be based on the need for international action. Now this mustn’t be used as an excuse by the sceptics for not taking action, and I think that there is a danger of this. How many times have you all heard that if we turned off every light and closed down the entire British economy, growth in China would have made up for our reduction in carbon emissions in just a short time? I think this is actually to misunderstand what is happening in China. Last year China lost three per cent of her GDP because of climate change. Farmers were rioting in the street because of the pollution to their crops. Because China is actually an energy-poor country, it’s now one of the world’s largest investors in renewable energy. So I think that we mustn’t allow the sceptics to make and get away with this argument, and we must push for international action that is based on both emissions trading systems particularly in Europe, but also a proper successor treaty to Kyoto that includes both China, India and Brazil, and also, vitally, America. I’m actually optimistic. Yes we have issues and difficulties with the current US administration when it comes to climate change, but one of the striking conversations I’ve had in the last year was actually the man who helped to hitch up my huskies who pointed out that in northern Norway, both Hilary Clinton and Jonathan Cain had been there to see for themselves the evidence of global warming in that part of our world. As you might expect I lean rather more towards the Jonathan Cain rather than the Hilary Clinton school of thinking, but I think the fact that the next generation of American leaders are taking these issues so seriously is a very good sign frankly for our world.
"But I think we’re unlikely to get to international action unless we add a third element to our consensus and that is the need for domestic leadership here in the United Kingdom. And this is where I think that the Climate Change Bill is so important, and where I think specifically that my party, and I hope the Liberal Democrats too, will push for annual emissions limits, rather than these interim limits that the government has spoken of. And I think the argument for this is compelling. We’ve had now in three Labour manifestos in a row a commitment to a 20% cut in carbon by 2010. Three times promised to the electorate in the vote in the most authoritative (?) document you can put in front of the electorate, and now dropped. And I think this shows that targets that are five or ten years off simply don’t create the culture-change in Whitehall and Westminster that you need to have results, and we must have those annual targets to make it work.
"The fact is, we need that sort of government leadership in order to actually give us the permission to raise this issue and campaign for this issue internationally, as we need to. But I don’t actually think that domestic leadership, my third point, would be enough without my fourth, which is actually a more optimistic, future-oriented approach to this issue.
"If climate change domestically just becomes an issue of tax and regulation and doom and gloom we will never take the British people with us. Yes, touch decisions have to be made. Yes, it will need explaining why on occasions people will have to pay more, or be taxed more, or do things differently in their private or commercial lives, but we must make sure that in action on climate change we look at the uplifting and exciting elements of cutting people’s domestic energy bills, of cutting their travel bills. We need to encourage business to look at the $500 billion market for environmental goods and services worldwide. I think this is absolutely vital. I’m quite clear that it was technology, and progress and economic development that got us into a situation of climate change, and that it will be technology, and progress, and economic development that gets us out of this problem.
"The fifth point I wanted to make and finally, is that none of this will work, none of this consensus of taking the issue from mainstream to action will work without some quite profound cultural change. It won’t be possible domestically to take the decisions necessary, unless we have the cultural change necessary to make people demand their politicians to take action, and it won’t be possible to reach agreements internationally unless public opinion is willing our leaders on to actually make these decisions. And this is where I feel we need a new approach, a socially responsible approach, where every single person in our country, every single institution in our country has their role to play. We need to do more in schools to teach children about the environment and about the consequences of climate change, and about the consequences of our impact on the environment. We need local authorities to be competing with each other for who can actually go the furthest and do the best in terms of planning and development, and new housing schemes with low carbon emissions. We need businesses competing with each other over who can have the strongest environmental reputation; who can do the most to cut their energy bills and cut their carbon emissions. We need a complete change of culture in Whitehall and Westminster, so that actually the annual carbon report, the annual report on how we’re doing against our targets, becomes as important as the budget report, or the inflation report, or the autumn statement, or the defence estimates. It’s got to become a part of the political mainstream.
"I think it’s hugely exciting that this agenda is now absolutely at the front of our politics. We’ve said very clearly in my party, not just words, not just good intentions, but we want to see an increase in green taxes as a proportion of the total, we want to see the climate change levy turned into a proper carbon levy, we want to see aggressive and far sighted targets for emissions from cars, because we think that there’s a huge amount that we can do in terms of leadership on that front, and as I’ve said, we want annual targets for carbon emissions.
"I think you can expect to see from the Conservative party under my leadership over the next year even more grit on this issue. I’m ably supported by Peter Ainsworth and Greg Barker, by Zac Goldsmith and John Gummer, who are leading a huge team in our policy review. And I want the Conservative party to help lead the green revolution in Britain. A huge amount, I think, has been achieved in the past year, but now the time has come to turn a mainstream issue into mainstream action, if the political parties in this country have the courage to support them.
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This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2006