Theresa May should look to climate change for a positive legacy

This article originally featured on The Times online and was co-written by Alex Chalk MP and Simon Clarke MP.

Away from Brexit’s sound and fury there are matters on which there is almost total unanimity across the parliamentary party. None more so than climate change, where we have quietly been delivering success after success. We’ve seen six consecutive years of falling greenhouse gas emissions, including a startling 6 per cent fall in 2016 alone. Emissions per person are at a level last seen in 1858. We’re currently in a period of nearly two weeks and counting without any coal-fired generation at all, and the UK has the best performance in the G7 in terms of growing our economy while cutting our emissions.

On the international stage, we have founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance of nations and regions. British scientists played leading roles in last year’s seminal Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which found that the route to keeping climate change within safe limits entailed ending carbon emissions by mid-century. We are bidding to host the seminal United Nations summit in 2020 at which governments are due to upgrade the emission-cutting pledges they made at the Paris summit of 2015, and thus deliver their ambition of preventing dangerous levels of climate change.

Most significantly, the cabinet asked for and received new official advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the statutory adviser, on setting a new target that will deliver our fair share of the Paris agreement. Its recommendation: that Britain should move to net zero emissions, ending our contribution to climate change, by 2050.

The CCC’s report is full of technical detail on why it should be done and how it can be done. Crucially, its analysts worked alongside civil servants as they went: so no Sir Humphrey can now turn around and demand that the sums be redone, because Sir Humphrey was in the room.

Among the most cogent numbers are those on the cost of decarbonising. A decade ago, the CCC forecast that cutting emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 would cost 1-2 per cent of GDP. But prices of clean energy have fallen so quickly, with electric vehicles following suit, that the CCC now puts the cost of going all the way to zero at 1-2 per cent of GDP.

While the CCC’s experts were poring over their sums and parliament voting itself into stalemate over Brexit, something rather more important was happening on the streets of our towns and cities. Schoolchildren, inspired by the Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, went on strike to demand that our generation act in the interest of theirs. Later the good-humoured street-blockers of Extinction Rebellion made their case persuasively in London and around the country. Their demand of net zero by 2025 is beyond feasible, but in their call for swift action towards the target they are absolutely correct.

The simple fact is that in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, with concern about climate change rising visibly in every nation’s schools, with the cost of clean energy plummeting (onshore wind and solar down by 12 per cent in a single year), net zero is becoming the new normal. Citizens are demanding that we deal with climate change — in the UK, two thirds of the electorate want us to hit net zero within a few decades, while vanishingly few people oppose. Business is keen, with the CBI declaring that “a massive opportunity for exports makes net zero an essential part of ‘Brand Britain’ as we move into a new international era”.

Other nations are moving in the same direction. Sweden already has a 2045 target in national law; France, Iceland, New Zealand, Portugal and Costa Rica are among the many to have declared a political commitment. With our long history of leadership on climate change dating back to Margaret Thatcher’s call for a United Nations treaty, with our businesses queuing up to go clean, with both our children and our friends across the Commonwealth asking more of us . . . there really is no reason not to accept swiftly the CCC’s advice and put a net zero target in law now.

The cabinet can do this at the stroke of a pen by amending the 2050 target in the Climate Change Act. And it should. The past two years of Conservative government have not looked attractive. We two have found ourselves on opposite sides of the Brexit divide, as have many pairs of friends within the party and across the nation. We have fought our Brexit battles from conviction, but have failed to resolve our difference. But on climate change we are on the same side, where we line up not only with each other but with MPs and peers from every party, with science, civil society, business, the church, the Women’s Institute and the nation’s farmers.

A successful Brexit cannot, now, be the legacy that Theresa May and her cabinet desired. Committing to end Britain’s contribution to climate change can be. It would be both popular and principled and would go some way towards giving our divided party and divided nation some of the healing they so desperately need.