Nature neglected

In this election green policy only get airtime when it can be linked to jobs

Artillery Row

Remember when green politics were all the rage? Boris and Carrie in Number 10, Lord Goldsmith at the Foreign Office. The Green Party putting up record numbers in the local elections and their European counterparts tearing up trees (not literally, of course) across the continent. It wasn’t that long ago. 

Green pledges only get airtime when they can be linked to jobs

How things have changed. If you could hear over the background music, there was only one mention of green issues in Rishi’s election announcement speech and it wasn’t an endorsement. Instead the PM claimed his government had prioritised energy security and your family finances over environmental dogma.

Sir Keir went a fraction greener. He called out the Tories over sewage in our rivers and name-checked his party’s Great British Energy initiative. This latter policy was not however heralded as environmental policy (or, as Sunak might have it, dogma), but rather a tool for reducing fuel bills. 

Thus was the tone set for the campaign. Today we have the manifestos and it was Sir Keir’s turn to be heckled. A young voter interrupted the Labour manifesto launch because Starmer and Reeves have “gutted” their environmental commitments “while wildfires rage and floods sweep people’s lives away.” 

“Gutted” is too strong; Clean Energy takes up a huge amount of real estate in the Labour manifesto. What is true, however, is that throughout Labour and Tory policy making, green pledges only get airtime when they can be linked to jobs.

It is for this reason, not in spite of it, that net zero remains a common policy commitment. A compelling narrative has built around decarbonising the economy, a Bidenomics-infused vision of clean energy revolution and green infrastructure as a route to jobs and growth. 

Only the Tories have managed to frighten themselves off the idea. Right up front in the Conservative Manifesto you’ll find the commitment to cut the cost of net zero to consumers. The fact the UK was the first major economy to get halfway to net zero, a genuinely impressive achievement, is hidden away in the depths of page 50. 

Only 5 months ago, former Energy Security and Net Zero Minister Graham Stuart was framing the dream as wiring up the British coastline. Just as the coal we discovered beneath our feet put Britain at the forefront of the industrial revolution, Stuart said, so will our island geography establish Britain as world leader in off shore wind. Now as the Tory net zero policy offer frets over its democratic mandate and promises no one will notice anything is happening, that vision belongs to Labour.

Industry, innovation, tech, jobs; that is the language of net zero, which allows it to stay on the policy agenda when economic growth is the only game in town. It is a poorly kept secret that no policy that threatens the growth agenda is allowed past Rachel Reeves, and so the language of securonomics pulses through the hyperconnected infrastructure of Labour’s Clean Energy plans. 

Where the Tory manifesto quavers, Labour’s is bullish: “with a serious industrial strategy and a genuine partnership between the public and private sectors, we can make Britain a clean energy superpower.” There is even a unifying philosophy: economic growth, energy security, lower bills, and addressing climate change can be complementary and the state, including public investment, can guarantee that they are.

But what of the rest of the environmental platform? The issues that can’t pull off the net zero industrial strategy trick? What of nature and pollution, the traditional concerns of the conservationist?

Despite being a nation of nature lovers, who give millions to wildlife charities and tune in to Attenborough documentaries in vast numbers, there is a cross-party policy-making consensus that nature does not have a compelling political story to tell. In an election in which cost of living is front and centre, nature is nowhere to be heard.

The assault on nature policy is multi-faceted. Financial commitments are risky. Appeasing farmers is a priority at a time when tractors keep turning out in protest across European capitals (and Cardiff), yet there is little budgetary appetite to pay them to do more for nature. And a focus on economic growth is unlikely to bring land management to the forefront of the policy conversation. 

We need a political narrative for nature, and soon

You can see the policy desert across the manifestos. To be fair, Steve Reed has taken to the papers twice to lay out his ideas, first in the Guardian back in April and more recently in the Independent last week. Responding to the latter, the RSPB’s Beccy Speight said “Now, we need to see nature placed at the heart of all political party manifestos.”

So how did that go? At first I couldn’t find nature in Labour’s manifesto at all, because it’s hidden in the section on Clean Energy. Which is itself a fairly stark statement of environmental priorities. If you look harder you’ll find everyone wants a land use framework, but both Tories and Labour want to use it to drive food security, which is shorthand for don’t do conservation on productive farmland. Everyone wants to talk about sewage in rivers, because that’s the one bit nature policy that seems to have cut through. But otherwise, detail is thin on the ground.

Nature is in crisis. This silence is worrying. Steve Reeds’ nature pledges are really excellent in places; new national forests, wilder national parks, protecting 30% of land and sea for nature. Joining forces with Angela Rayner to deliver nature-positive housebuilding is an especially canny move. But these ideas are not “at the heart” of the manifesto. Labour’s environmental policy commitments run to over 2,500 words, 5% of which address nature (doing the maths so you don’t have to). Policies founder on the political will to deliver, and right now all the political will in the environmental space is powering the EV that’s driving us to net zero.

The question for all conservationists is how to redirect some of that green energy into delivering for wildlife. Philanthropy, a great British tradition, has taken us so far. Government spending is under the cosh. Green finance holds enormous promise but smells to some of commodification. We need a political narrative for nature, and soon. Otherwise, like wildflowers in the shade of a shiny new Small Modular Reactor, those wildlife friendly pledges might just wilt and fade away.

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