Monday 29 June 2020 8:37 am

Let’s build back green, not grey

Alex Stafford is Conservative MP for Rother Valley

Despite the tragedies of the last few months, we have not been short of the rays of hope and human courage that often come to define crises of these kinds. 

As cliched as it may now be to say, the weekly showering of applause for our keyworkers shows that even when facing the greatest adversities, humanity retains an awesome capacity to celebrate the best among us and to see a better world ahead. 

It has been particularly heartening to see people across the country finding solace in nature during the pandemic. Thousands of people are currently part of the “30 Days of Wild” campaign, while bird enthusiasts have been taking part in the #BreakfastBirdwatch each morning. Gardens, parks, and other outdoor spaces have become our sanctuaries. 

I am convinced that this increased appreciation for our green and wild spaces has played a role in the sudden deluge of calls from chief executives, celebrities, youth leaders, as well as ordinary people across the UK for the economic recovery to put nature at its heart.

Although environmental issues have rightly taken a backseat for the last few months, the clock is still ticking down on the climate crisis. The key challenge of the decade remains: to reverse the catastrophic losses in precious habits and species and to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, with all the polluting impacts associated with them. 

That’s a challenge I’m proud that our Prime Minister has taken on with his characteristic enthusiasm and vigour. Speaking to world leaders in April, Boris Johnson declared: “It will be the duty of every responsible government to see that our economies are revived and rebuilt in a way that will stand the test of time. That means investing in industries and infrastructure that can turn the tide on climate change.”

But we can do more. According to a new analysis released today by the think tank Green Alliance, the government still has further to go in making sure it’s long-term plans for the economy protect our country from the threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. 

The report notes that there is currently a gap of over £14.1bn in the project pipeline for annual investment in low-carbon transport, buildings, natural capital and industry infrastructure. While the Prime Minister and chancellor have both spoken out in favour of “building back better” for climate and nature, we need to ensure that actions match words — which I am sure they will.

And while Covid-19 has in some ways focused attention away from other issues, it has also shone a spotlight on areas of investment where responding to the pandemic and protecting the environment go hand in hand.

The clean air and quiet streets of lockdown, coupled with the difficulty of using public transport in a socially distanced way, mean that cycling and walking infrastructure have become more urgent, as have schemes to accelerate electrification of transport. Similarly, the widespread trend for homeworking has fast-tracked the need to upgrade our digital architecture.

Considering policy through a green lens can help support other government priorities too. Investment in our buildings — upgrading the leakiest homes to be futuristic houses with high levels of energy efficiency, low-carbon heat and battery storage — will create jobs in regions all around the UK, as will delivering on the Prime Minister’s pledge in the March Budget to plant 30,000 hectares of trees and restore 35,000 hectares of peatland. 

Similarly, becoming world leaders in the remanufacturing, repair and recycling of resources — including of critical materials needed in electric vehicles and wind turbines — could generate 102,000 jobs of various skill levels right across the country. 

The risks of inaction are clear. In the UK, almost 60 per cent of wildlife species are in long-term decline, while 15 per cent are at risk of disappearing altogether. And while carbon emissions have fallen over the last decade, Britain has a lot more work to do to ensure that we hit our climate targets. 

But the opportunities are right here in front of us too.

Britain has a choice: continue with a business-as-usual approach, or seize this chance to pivot to a better normal, putting the future of our planet, and all the economic opportunities it presents us, at the centre of our strategy. 

The way forward seems clear as day to me. Let’s build back green, not grey.

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