The UK has had a summer full of broken records, though, not necessarily for the records a country wants to see broken. Britain experienced a heatwave where temperatures hit 40 degrees Celsius for the first time ever; it was a heatwave described by the Met Office as ‘far more intense and widespread than previous comparable heatwaves’ . The extreme weather did not end there as parts of England experienced prolonged warm weather, combined with a lack of rainfall led to the rare circumstance of a drought being declared across several parts of England on 12th August .
Climate change is undeniably behind the recent weather and should have led to a summer of discussion amongst policy makers about what sort of action could be taken to tackle the climate crisis, especially with the backdrop of the Conservative Party leadership election.
However, quite the opposite, environmental policies have been almost completely absent from both candidates’ campaigns. Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have committed their support to already established environmental policies, such as the net zero target by 2050 and the Conservative Environment Network pledge card which includes promoting clean British energy .
Sunak and Truss are instead partaking in environmental backsliding, in a bid to whip up support amongst the Tory party faithful. For example, Truss has been accused by Patrick Harvie, the co-leader of the Scottish Greens, of giving ‘a nod and a wink’ to climate sceptics by proposing pausing the green levy on fuel bills. The levy helps fund a range of environmental policies . Meanwhile, Sunak’s campaign has mostly overlooked climate change; environmental policies are absent from Mr Sunak’s Ten Point Plan for Britain . If Rishi Sunak is to be judged on his previous actions, then his record has been poor. Sunak voted in February 2020 against a Johnson government proposal to eliminate all transport emissions by 2030. Liz Truss’ record is no better having primarily voted against measures to prevent climate change, she opposed the requirement for ministers to have ‘due regard’ for net zero when making policies .
At least environmental policies such as solar farms and onshore wind farms have got some sort of mention even if it is about each candidates’ dislike of such energy sources. Sustainable transport policies have been left in the dark, barely discussed on the campaign trail.
At the Manchester Tory leadership hustings Liz Truss only mentioned sustainable transport once. Alluding vaguely to resurrecting the Northern Powerhouse Rail project to improve connections between northern cities across the Pennines. The policy has been in political limbo for much of the 2010s not dissimilar to HS2 . Truss however only discussed the economic benefits of Northern Powerhouse Rail rather than the environmental.
Rishi Sunak did not mention sustainable transport at all during the Manchester hustings. When the Rishi Sunak campaign press office were approached to comment on what a Rishi Sunak governments’ sustainable transport policy might look like, their response was blunt: ‘we’re not offering any comment on this issue for the time being’. Signalling how much of an afterthought sustainable transport is for the Sunak campaign.
As mentioned earlier, this campaign is about appealing to Conservative Party members who are overwhelming white, male and middle aged. For this small electorate, which makes up 0.4% of the British population, sustainable transport isn’t at the top of their priorities . Indeed, a YouGov poll commissioned by The Times of Tory party members revealed that reaching net zero was at the bottom of members’ policy priorities; just 4% ranked this as a priority .
Both candidates in this race are guilty of talking the talk when it comes to climate change; they use the right buzzwords to sound like they’re taking action. When it comes to announcing decisive action, which may not be the policy ‘red meat’ Tory members like, Truss and Sunak do not walk the walk.
It didn’t have to be this way; focusing solely on sustainable transport, there are plenty of policy proposals to go around. Not least because carbon emissions from transport are higher than any other sector. National government should look at what local councils are doing, such as Sheffield City Council where the council secured the return of a free circular bus route around the city centre .
Tanya Steele, chief executive of The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) appealed for the candidates to see the broad benefits of investing in green infrastructure. The WWF estimates this investment could create 230,000 jobs in green transport. UK green exports could grow from £5 billion to £80 billion by 2050 if the UK positioned itself as a leader in the market . As Conservatives, interested in economic growth and job creation, such investment should be championed by Truss and Sunak.
If Sheffield City Council or the WWF aren’t enough endorsement, the right-leaning think-tank Onward should be the incentive to act. Onward are actively lobbying the Tories to take more action. One such proposal is to provide more incentive for the public to go green, such as with the promotion of uptake of electric vehicles through salary sacrifice schemes .
From these proposals, what’s clear is that the next Prime Minister has plenty of options going forward to tackle climate change, not just through transportation. One can only hope that once the slinging of red meat policies to the Tory selectorate is over, the next Prime Minister will take climate change seriously and offer more than just “no comment”.
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