Green conservatives – can it be done?

Will Bennett 6 November 2017

Sam Hall is a Senior Research Fellow at Bright Blue, a think tank and advisor to the Conservative Party. TCS interviewed him about policy, the climate and economics. 

You mentioned that the Conservative approach to the environment is "better" than that of the Left. Could you please elaborate on this? In what terms is the Conservative approach better?

I think that there are a couple of things on that. Firstly, it comes down to markets and costs. The support for environmental measures relies on delivering an affordable option to the consumer. I think that the conservative approach, for example towards clean energy, which utilizes markets is more likely to deliver lower cost energy. To give you an example, the UK government changed the subsidy regime – or "tariff" – i.e. the payment that you got for generating renewable energy to an auction based system where people who wanted to build solar plants and wind plants, and the lowest price was the one that cleared. If you look at how the government supported off shore winds in the UK, they set very stringent targets for cost reduction. So they said that we will continue to give you subsidy if you reduce cost in this or that area. I think that because conservatives are more skeptical of subsidies and instead use market based mechanisms, they get these environmental outcomes at a lower cost which I think is really important. The second thing is arranged around individual action and the importance of individual approaches to the environment. So, I talked about in my talk the different ways that can work – litter picking troops, wildlife reserves, insulation of homes. These things are far more likely to have greater public support if individuals themselves act on the environment. I think that focus on the individual is better on the conservative side.

Taking from that, you mentioned in your talk the idea of giving individuals loans at low interest so that they have no financial barriers stopping them from pursuing environmental goals through insulating their houses etc. However, a lot of the people with high energy use are rich individuals who have no financial barriers to adapting such technology. Even people who are financially capable simply aren't doing it. How would you tackle such an issue?

I think that at the moment not many low cost options exist and having an attractive financing mechanism will definitely act as a bit of financial incentive to help people get these things. But as I said in my talk, I do think that this is where you could reasonably expect to regulate to ensure a minimal level of demand, make sure that the stuff that people buy is good quality. So, I appreciate that's not all individual voluntary action. It's about having good product standards. When you buy a home, I think it's reasonable to expect that it meets a certain minimum energy performance standards. It's not really your job – so I think there's a case there for minimum energy requirement regulation. And then secondly, if you for example built an conservatory or something like that and you're buying this new addition to your house again, you could expect that it is well insulated and does not add to your energy bill. So again, I think there's a case for when you go to sell your house, builders tell you that you have to ensure that it’s a good quality product and well insulated. I think that's just part of having decent consumer good standards rather than it being an imposition on people.

How do you bring about that kind of awareness in people? Those are good, feasible options for people to do but they aren't doing them.

Oh, in that case it's regulation. So, those things that we talked about, I think that if that’s the case the government should just regulate.

Quite broadly, what are your ideas on the impact of Brexit on the environment?

I think the area that is most affected is our natural environment. So firstly, it's two things – the regulations that we have, environmental protection, the law – many of which come from the EU at the moment; the government has said that it wants to transfer all those into UK law. [..] I think that that is something that they are going to do. Michael Gove has recently said that the UK exceeds in some of those standards in some areas, particularly around animal welfare. So banning live exports for example of animals from outside the EU. Others have called for going beyond their air quality standards. Currently, the WHO says that the EU mandated legal level of particulate matter is unsafe and should be lower. We could adopt something like that. I think that there is scope for environmental matters and there are certain areas where the majority would be in support of that. Secondly, I think that the opportunity is around funding. So the common agriculture policy is a big part of money and its currently not really spent on the environment and it actually acts to disincentivize certain activities that might benefit the environment. So I think the scope to properly align that with our environmental policy objectives such as increasing forest cover, reducing flood risk through natural methods – I think we can do that when we take back control of the CAP funding and we choose to spend it wisely.

Do you think that Brexit has a similar positive impact on climate as well?

I think that on climate change, a lot of our legislation is domestic. So our climate change act, which is more ambitious than the EU climate targets is domestic and won't change itself through Brexit. Government policies will stay the same. So I think with climate not much will change because it doesn't have to do with the EU and we actually tend to go beyond the EU standards in many areas. So I don't think there's a huge impact on climate, but on the natural environment there is a big big opportunity, particularly with the CAP funding.