Theresa May says Britain leads on climate change, but Tory policy falls far too short

Theresa May’s environmental rhetoric shows she is listening to public opinion, finally.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Theresa May can’t save Britain from Brexit - but she has attempted to revive the Conservative youth vote by promising that she will help save the planet.

Writing in the Guardian today, she boasted that Britain has “always led the way” on cutting emmissions and protecting the environment.

She also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to phasing out coal power that doesn't deploy carbon capture by 2025, announced a summit on the future of zero emmissions vehicles, and pledged £140m of new funding for poorer countries hit by the effects of climate change. She described helping the latter as a “moral imperative”.

May's return to David Cameron's hug-a-husky rhetoric is a wise move if the party hopes to win over the youth vote. Polling from Conservative think tank Bright Blue has shown climate change is the issue 18-28 year-olds most want politicians to discuss.

Yet are these latest gestures more hot air than hard policy?

Far from leading on the issue, it would appear the Conservatives are simply following where public opinion has already forged ahead: 82 per cent now support the use of renewable energy, a figure that increases with each assessment.

It’s a similar story in the business community. At today's One Planet Summit in Paris, the World Bank announced that it will not finance oil and gas exploration and production after 2019. Over 200 top investors have also called on the big carbon polluting firms to do more to tackle climate-related risks.

In contrast, the UK’s global “leadership” on the issue stuttered to a halt after David Cameron cut renewable subsidies and sold off the Green Investment Bank (something the National Audit Office now says was done at too low a price).

In the government’s most recent budget, the carbon price was frozen at current levels, as was fuel duty, and no new funding was announced for low-carbon electricity till at least 2025. Neither was much detail given on how the UK’s intends to meet its legally binding carbon budgets.

Green MP and co-leader Caroline Lucas fears that the Tories still have a long way to go in seriously tackling the climate threat. “Not only do Ministers continue to back fracking, against the wishes of local communities, but they hand vast subsidies to gas and oil too,” she told the New Statesman.

"So while we of course celebrate wins like the phasing out of coal, we're yet to be convinced of the Government's commitment to green issues. If they're serious about curtailing climate breakdown ministers will both commit to immediate support for renewables to enable them to take off and become the hugely successful industries of tomorrow, and double down on efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground."

Whether further policy announcements will follow May’s warm words remains to be seen. 

The government should be congratulated on its co-leadership of Powering Past Coal Alliance, which today saw new countries and businesses sign up to phasing out traditional coal power. But boasting about the UK’s falling emissions without mentioning that global emissions are set to rise to a record high this year, misses the bigger picture and Britain's role within it. As President Macron more responsibly put it in his speech to the summit this afternoon, "We are losing the battle". 

If May truly hopes to re-set her relationship with the young, she must first own her party's past mistakes.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.