Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

David Cameron

Could the Conservatives be the party to ditch economic growth as a policy and oversee the change our climate needs?

There are only seven more annual political conference seasons to go before the world enters a new, far more dangerous phase of unpredictable global warming, based on the risk categories of climate scientists.

That means we should already be able to see genuine solutions emerging in the debates and speeches echoing around the nation’s conference capitals of Brighton, Bournemouth and Manchester. It also means that whoever is successfully elected to form the next government in 2010, they will almost certainly be in power during the period when the fate of the atmosphere is settled.

Except, perhaps, during wartime, history rarely offers up such a definitive performance indicator for a government. But here, for better or worse, the words, “it happened on your watch” will be carved, probably in coal, on their headstone.

New research from the Hadley Centre, part of the government’s own Met Office, set the scene for the political challenge. It warns that we should now plan for the possibility of a 4C temperature rise by 2060. This is far beyond the maximum 2C rise considered a maximum safe threshold before the environmental dominoes start to fall.

On 25 September, the Friday before the Labour party conference began, the world went into ecological debt for the year, beginning to consume more resources and produce more waste than the planet could handle.

The challenge couldn’t be clearer. Bad accounting, poor risk assessment and profligate behaviour nearly destroyed the global financial system. It threatens to do the same to a climate conducive to civilisation. It’s not reform that the next government must oversee, but paradigm shift.

Yet in the last few weeks, the siren voices for a return to business as usual have been getting louder. We need bonuses back, says the City, although they never really went away, to get and keep the best talent. But that was hardly a good strategy last time, when the “best talent” on bonuses wrought chaos. The Confederation of British Industry says recovery depends on cutting back regulation. But an absence of appropriate regulation is the slippery slope down which the economy and environment slide. Others call for another wave of no-strings bailouts for the fossil fuel-intensive car industry. These voices, effectively, are telling the survivors of a sinking ship to leave their lifeboats and climb back on board.

As the Conservative party takes energy from Labour’s disarray and disheartenment is there any sign that they might do the seemingly unthinkable, and consider radical economic redesign to prevent what happened to the banking system from happening to the climate system?

On one hand, there is a disturbing and furtive creep of old vested interests. Big money, big business, old school connections looking to return to their comfort zone after more than a decade of feeling culturally uncomfortable with a Labour government. Regressive tax, more binge consumerism and dirty and weakly regulated industry are all poised for a potentially easy ride. Yet the Conservatives are also on a journey to distance themselves from their own past. What started as an unavoidable rebranding exercise can take on a life of its own.

David Cameron is on record as saying that well-being is as, if not more, important than growth in an economy. An increasing number of voices from Nobel economists down are pointing out the ultimate incompatibility of endless rich country economic growth with the preservation of a habitable planet. What’s interesting for the Conservatives is that ditching growth as the single, overarching economic policy obsession could well revive ways of living that they find politically appealing.

A world in which there is much less passive consumption of goods and services is a world in which we do many more things for ourselves and each other. It’s a world not of absolute but much greater self-sufficiency, at the national, local and even individual level. In other words, it’s a world in which we have much more control over our own fate. A revival of real local democracy beckons in which we are more responsible locally for our own food, energy and the reciprocal delivery of services. With 86 months to go, that doesn’t sound too bad to a public very jaded about UK politics – it may even sound infinitely preferable.

86 months and counting