In the past week we’ve seen a political arms race over the environment.
I don’t doubt that Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Gove want to “leave our environment in a better state than we found it”. But for them our natural world is an added extra – the icing on the cake they’d like to have and eat.
Last week Labour set out an ambitious plan for much-needed investment in renewable energy and home insulation – with a target to eliminate the UK’s carbon emissions by 2050. It’s the first time the official Opposition has followed the science and committed to implementing policies the Green Party has backed for decades, and it’s good to see Corbyn embracing the opportunities for stable, well-paid work a green economy brings.
But if he thinks it’s enough to bolt on some green energy to business as usual, then he doesn’t have a hope of meeting his climate targets – and misses out on the huge benefits a truly holistic approach could bring.
Labour needs to end its support for expensive nuclear power and vanity projects like HS2, and take a firm stance against the ecologically impossible expansion of airports. Instead, it should prioritise projects like building a clean and affordable public transport network – which could transform quality of life in the UK, improving our health, and making our cities more liveable and our countryside accessible.
This week it was Michael Gove’s turn. Our Environment Secretary talks an impressive game when it comes to restoring our countryside – but his focus is forever on tidying up, rather than tackling the cause of the mess.
He paints a wonderful picture of replanted trees and regenerated soils – but does nothing to address the reasons our nature is so depleted in the first place.
His only real policy announcement at Tory Conference was a well-intentioned plan to redirect food waste from shops to dinner tables. But without strong measures to force transparency on supermarket supply chains and end strict cosmetic standards, farmers will keep having to plough perfectly good produce back into the ground.
And behind the scenes at his department, the green veneer is peeling.
Gove talks about protecting our fast-disappearing wildlife – while overseeing a huge expansion of the ineffective and cruel badger cull.
He pledged a ban on live animal exports after Brexit – then watered it down into a “restriction”.
He waxes lyrical about restoring national parks – but cuts the regulator charged with looking after vital habitats to the bone. Natural England is now so short-staffed and under-funded that it’s lowering targets, failing to monitor sites of special scientific interest and unable to prevent “further human-induced extinctions of known threatened species”.
He promises a “Green Brexit” – but his department has admitted the long-awaited new environmental regulator won’t be established for months after we leave the EU, leaving a dangerous governance gap, with no effective monitoring or enforcement of key environmental policy.
While the prospect of politicians of all parties finally paying so much attention to the natural world is welcome, it risks being too little too late.
What’s missing is a comprehensive approach that recognises the change needed in every government department, not just in Defra, and an urgency that is commensurate to the level of threat that we face.
The Treasury needs to stop subsidising the fossil fuel industry, force polluters to pay for the destruction they cause, and shift taxes away from labour and on to resources.
The Business department needs to help us move beyond our throwaway culture and redesign our economy so that nothing goes to waste.
The Government needs to recognise that we live on a planet with finite resources – and start measuring our progress as a society by the quality of our lives, not the expansion of our GDP.
I get that it’s not easy for any of us – let alone those in power – to countenance the scale of the change needed to secure our futures. But doing nothing is no easier choice than taking action.
And building a green economy means creating a fairer, healthier, less divided society.
Technology like solar panels open up opportunities for community-owned power generation – freeing people from the ‘big six’ suppliers, whose tariffs fluctuate with global oil and gas markets, and giving everyone a stake in their local infrastructure.
And measures like redesigning our roads so that pedestrians and cyclists have priority will reduce road accidents, clean our air and encourage more active lifestyles.
The other parties’ warm words give me hope that they could come around to this vision of a greener society – finally the environment is a factor in their thinking.
It’s going to take everyone to rebuild a fairer, more sustainable, more beautiful Britain. This must be the start of a national conversation about how to get there.
Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion