Net-zero Targets Side-lined in Crucial Tory Leadership Contest

The Conservative Party has had a chequered history with climate change policy. Back in 2006, David Cameron’s party rebranded itself as environmentalist, telling voters to “vote Blue to go green”. However, while record-breaking temperatures in the UK’s latest heatwave actualise fears of impending catastrophe, and energy insecurity exacerbated by the ongoing war sets to jeopardise net-zero targets, the two remaining candidates vying to become next Prime Minister on 5th September 2022 seem indifferent to the crisis.

Rishi Sunak and Elizabeth Truss both express concern at net-zero targets harming business. This follows the tone of fellow leadership hopeful Badenoch likened net-zero targets to ‘unilateral economic disarmament’. [1]

A former commercial manager at Shell, Truss has continued her record of scepticism to net-zero. Her policy proposals fly in the face of her claim she was “a teenage eco-warrior before in was fashionable”, announcing on a BBC debate on Monday 25th July that she wanted to “lift the green energy levy” and on a later show that she would lift the government’s moratorium on fracking. [2] [3] As Secretary of State for the Environment, she cut subsidies for solar farms in 2016, having claimed they pushed food production overseas and were ‘a blight on the landscape’. [4] She is also a consistent supporter of a third runway at Heathrow in the face consistent evidence that reducing flying is pivotal to net-zero targets.

Her reluctance to climate change issues is captured by her rigid opposition to the UK’s hosting of the COP 26 climate summit in September last year, where sources from the cabinet report she argued “this is too expensive” and “we shouldn’t be taking responsibility”. [5] She reportedly delayed her attendance to the summit, deliberately flew against advice, only to use her speech to end a fishing dispute with France. [6] Her flagship policy is a modest commitment to innovating technology such as electric vehicles. However, her priority is for these policies not to “harm people and business”. [7]

A former Johnson ally and Old Wykehamists, Sunak's policies has raised fears that the UK's next Prime Minister may renege on the UK's net zero ambitions.

Rishi Sunak has stated similar fears, announcing that if climate policies go “too hard and fast, we will lose”. [8] Last April, as Chancellor under the floundering Johnson government he blocked a ‘green homes’ plan which would have invested money in home energy efficiency improvements for poorer households taken from a levy on energy bills. In February, he is alleged to have pushed for the ‘fast-track’ approval of six oil and gas fields in the North Sea, bypassing the regulatory bodies, despite declining resources in the basin and its detriment to UK net-zero targets. [9]

Defying calls by Conservative colleagues, Sunak pledged to maintain strict rules on onshore wind farms in “recognition of the distress and disruption that onshore wind farms can often cause” despite their potential for low-cost electricity bills. [10] Offshore wind farms reportedly can deliver energy four times cheaper than gas power plants. An assessment of Sunak’s voting record in Parliament by the TheyWorkForYou website concluded he “almost always” voted against measures to prevent climate change.

Neither candidate is willing to put climate issues as a central feature of their campaign. This is a notable shift in tone from departing Prime Minister Johnson who pledged to make Britain the “cleanest, greenest country on Earth” and declared a ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’. [11] However, with the recent ruling by High Court that the government was failing to meet the obligations of the Climate Change Act 2019, and fellow Conservatives like Zac Goldsmith accusing candidates of not giving “a s*** about climate change”, this neglect may prove environmentally and politically costly for the next Prime Minister. [12]