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Vote blue, get blue

Is this the end of the green wing of the Tory party?

We all know what has happened to the Conservatives’ promise to be “the greenest government ever”. Outdated and overpriced nuclear power is back on the policy agenda even as China and Korea invest in modern, thorium-based alternatives. Green levies to pay for renewable energy could be heading for the recycling bin, and the UK’s carbon reduction target now appears to be something of an embarrassment to ministers. Moreover, prominent Conservative politicians such as Nigel Lawson and Peter Lilley routinely lay into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The shelving of the green pledge is mostly down to economics, and possibly also the much-debated environmental Kuznets curve, named after the Nobel-winning economist Simon Kuznets. Crudely put, this is the idea that environmentalism is something only the rich can afford; standards of living must be high and rising before societies are ready to consider paying extra to protect their longer-term futures.

In 2010 and the four decades preceding it, developed countries considered themselves wealthy enough to foot the bill for environmental science and for translating that science into policies such as the Kyoto Protocol. Emerging nations such as China and India were less enthusiastic, arguing that Europe and the United States never needed to comply with environmental regulations when they were still developing. But they played along and rarely challenged the idea at the core of environmentalism: that today’s generations have a responsibility to leave the planet in reasonable health for their successors. 

Much environmentalism came out of the left, but by the 2010 general election it had become mainstream enough to prompt the Conservatives to produce a “Vote blue to go green” slogan.

Times have changed. Opinion polls now say that swathes of voters are worried about jobs, rising costs of living and immigration. There is a cross-party consensus that public spending is too high. Whoever wins in 2015 is likely to continue on the path of austerity, which means going easy on green regulations, shutting down any public body not considered essential to the economy, spending less on international environmental meetings and maybe less on environmental science. It is very possible that the UK’s substantial contributions to the IPCC will be reviewed.

The paradox is that modern sustainable development, born in the cities of Europe and North America, is now being challenged from these very places, and so far there appears to be no counter-response.

But there can be one. When Cameron first needed to ‘detoxify’ his party, he picked a few green-friendly politicians to advise him, including former environment minister and now Conservative peer John Gummer and former Ecologist editor Zac Goldsmith, now the MP for Richmond Park. They and others can speak out and remind voters that there is anything but consensus among Conservatives on the environment.

All of this is good news for Liberal Democrat efforts to distance themselves from their coalition partners. But there are only so many environment policies the Lib Dems can protect. It’s time for those whose party promised ‘the greenest government ever’ to stand up and be counted.