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Climate policy without the greenery: Is this the new face of Conservative environmentalism?

  • 04 Feb 2014, 16:00
  • Mat Hope

Dorcas Sinclair

The Conservatives entered the 2010 elections promising voters that if they wanted to 'go green' they needed to 'vote blue'. But the Conservative party's climate change agenda has suffered a number of setbacks since David Cameron set foot in number 10 four years ago.

Now a group of Tory politicians has made a bid to reboot the party's environmental agenda - but they're being very careful how they talk about the plans.

Climate policy without the greenery

Yesterday, a group of self-acclaimed "progressive" Conservatives launched a report they hope will get the party's environmental agenda back on track.

The report was authored by the "2020 Group", which includes climate minister Greg Barker and "green champion" Laura Sandys. The Guardian described the report as the "pro-Green Tory" manifesto, and claimed it is intended to push back against the influence of climate skeptic party members.  

It's not immediately obvious the report has much to do with climate or environmental policy, however. Notably, the word "green" doesn't appear once.

Instead of promoting policies explicitly aimed at tackling climate change or preserving the UK's green and pleasant land, the report proposes ways to make the economy less wasteful and more efficient.

It certainly has some eye-catching policy proposals.

For example, it recommends a ban on chucking plastics, wood, textiles and food into landfill sites. It says materials should be recycled and re-used instead - a process it describes as "sweating assets".

While such policies could have a significant environmental impact, the report takes a more detached approach to another big issue: climate change.

The report doesn't assess how its proposals might impact carbon dioxide emissions, or call for industries to curb emissions in the name of tackling climate change. Instead, it argues that the government should help companies reduce their emissions to minimise the impact of policies that make polluters pay - such as carbon levies and taxes.

The language of "resource efficiency", a "circular economy" and "putting a value on a unit of energy saved" is a long way from the brand of green conservativism Cameron promoted in 2010.

Back then, the party's leader was urging his colleagues and the public to back a "new green revolution" that included policies to explicitly reduce emissions, decarbonise the economy, and tackle climate change. Now, the most 'green' Tories of all don't even mention "climate change" in a report ostensibly promoting policies to drive a decarbonised economy.

Party politics

So how did the Conservatives go from promoting a green revolution, to hiding environmental policy beneath the language of financiers? The answer partly lies in the Tory party's internal politicking, according to one academic.

Professor of politics at the University of York, Neil Carter, looks at the evolution of the UK's climate policy from 2006 to today in a new paper. He concludes that one of the main drivers behind the Conservative party's shift away from climate action since 2010 has been a growing opposition on the right of the party.

In the paper, he argues the party's right wing:

"... has developed a deep partisan hostility to climate policy by framing it 'variously as a ''green tax'', as ''subsidies'', as an unwarranted intervention by the state, and sometimes as associated with Europe - all frames which connect with wider political values at the core of the Tory right identity."

He says the prime minister appointed a number of climate policy antagonists to ministerial posts - such as the current environment secretary, Owen Paterson, and ex-energy minister, John Hayes - largely to calm the party's right.

Carter also argues that the conservative right has recently found an ally in the chancellor, George Osborne. He claims that since 2010, Osborne has made it clear he is "unconvinced by green growth arguments" and has "made several moves that were inconsistent with a low carbon strategy".

As a consequence of such internal pressure, the Conservative party's leadership has moved away from climate-friendly policies. The 2020 Group's report is intended to bring the leadership back.

New face

So is this the new face of conservative environmentalism?

It's tempting to draw parallels with the US, where the political right has fractured into factions of those that support climate action, and those that don't see the need for it.

Faced with such conditions, President Obama has started using a new phrase to talk around the issue of climate change: "carbon pollution". The term is supposed to be more politically neutral than the terms "carbon dioxide", "greenhouse gas emissions" or "climate change".

Obama arguably paved the way for political acceptance of his his Climate Action Plan - the most far-reaching climate policy programme the US has seen in over a decade - by changing the way he talked about climate change.

Perhaps the 2020 Group are trying to take a leaf out of Obama's book: By not talking about climate change, maybe it will create the space for government action. That would suggest 'pro-green' Conservatives have decided the best strategy to nudge their party back towards climate action is by promoting environmental policy under the radar.

While the US's experience shows that could work, it would mean the new conservative environmentalism is a far cry from 2010's confident blue-green revolution.

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