Environmental policy: The UK’s next greatest export?

As the UK grapples with an uncertain future, there's one area in which we can still lead the global debate.

Stephen Barnett, CEO

I recently visited Peak District: a quintessential part of the UK’s romanticised green and pleasant land. As it was my birthday, I was also treated to a surprise trip to the Warner Bros Studios outside London to experience the mastermind operation behind the Harry Potter films.

As we romped through the byways of Derbyshire, I was struck by the busloads of international tourists literally soaking up the lush countryside and enjoying (relatively) clean air, (somewhat) unpolluted rain and (mostly) unspoiled countryside. There were even more tourists at Harry Potter mecca, with thousands journeying to a quiet corner of Hertfordshireto witness the craftsmanship that translated books to film.

Self-deprecation is part of the British DNA. As a result, and particularly in today’s political climate, it can feel unnatural to take pride in our country.

But the Peak District and – naturally – Hogwarts made me think about the areas in which the UK is recognised as world class: our leading universities, film and television, literature, thriving industries, museums, art, finely tuned service sector and beautiful countryside.

At the same time, we tend to expend a great deal of energy trying to compete on playing fields we’re unlikely to win, be that manufacturing output, productivity, GDP growth or secondary school mathematics. This comes at the cost of competing in areas where we truly have an opportunity to lead the race.

Namely, environmental action.

Climate change is the biggest issue of our time. It is an all-encompassing, border-neutral and deeply emotive concern, solutions to which could attract a heady mix of votes, national pride and global influence. It is one of the few issues remaining that unites a politically fragmented and fractured country.

Not only is it a political win; in years to come, ecosystem preservation promises to rank alongside economic growth as a critical area of inter-country comparability. It doesn’t take a great leap to faith to imagine economists and commentators comparing the relationship between economic growth and CO2 reductions as we move towards an internationally recognised carbon-adjusted economic growth rate.

It’s possible to get trapped in the doubts of small-island fatalism. Even if we manage to achieve net zero emissions before 2050, the UK is a small drop in the vast ocean of global emissions. Rapidly developing economies and growing populations are the real heavyweights in the climate debate. As a less significant producer and consumer of goods and services, our actions alone are unlikely to make a dent on the global climate crisis.

But that’s not really the point. If the tourists attracted to the fields of Derbyshire and warehouses of Hertfordshire represent anything, it’s that the UK, small though it is, has a significant cultural footprint on and visibility in the rest of the world. And that comes with plenty of clout.

If we commit to looking after our own backyard, putting environmental initiatives at the top of our political agendas, we may find we have more influence than we think we do. Like a tugboat to juggernaut global economies, the UK could—by example—convince other nations that quality of life derives not just from economic growth but also environmental preservation. That realisation, in itself, could become one of our most successful exports.

What’s not to be excited about? We have an unprecedented opportunity to drive the global debate on the environment and climate. In one swoop, politicians could win approval, improve the quality of life for UK citizens, and make a physical and ideological impact on the rest of the world.

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