Just before the Rio Earth summit 25 years ago, John Major, in whose cabinet I then served as environment secretary, made a bold prediction: reducing Britain’s carbon emissions in line with recommendations of climate science would not, he said, harm our economy: “Our initial measures … will bring a worthwhile economic payoff to the country, to business and to ordinary people.”
This was a controversial statement at a time when solar energy, for example, was a costly technology better suited to spacecraft than British rooftops. And indeed the argument can still be heard that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will ruin our economies – even that it will return us to a pre-industrial living standard.
A quarter of a century later, the approach that we took has been richly vindicated. As research published on Monday by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit demonstrates, in that period the average Briton has grown richer faster than citizens of any other G7 nation; at the same time, his or her carbon footprint has fallen faster than in any other G7 nation. While it would be stretching reality to argue that Britain’s economic success has been driven by its climate change policies, no one can seriously argue any more that our climate policies have generated economic harm.
I would argue that there are three principal factors why Britain tops the G7 league in terms of growing our economy while reducing our carbon emissions. We started earlier than most, we have been consistent, and we have used market forces wherever possible. Certainly our decision now looks to have been a prudent investment. British companies in low-carbon goods and services already turn over an estimated £83bn per year; and with Brexit opening the door for a new era of free trade with major countries in Asia and Latin America, most of which are pursuing their own clean energy transitions, this sector has the potential to become a major engine of trade and growth.