UK Conservative Leadership: Climate Policy?

UK Conservative Leadership: Climate Policy?
Kentish flats wind power farm, in sunset.” by Vattenfall is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Recent unprecedented temperatures experienced within the United Kingdom – recorded as exceeding 40 degrees celsius for the first time – exemplify the increasing likelihood and intensity of severe heatwave events in the region as a result of climate change. This comes not long after the publishing of a new Progress Report by the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC), which highlights major failures in delivery of policy commitments vital to achieving the UK’s climate goals.

Despite a 70% reduction in emissions from electricity production and a noticeable uptick in the sale of electric cars, the UK has largely failed to implement policy on headline goals such as home insulation and agricultural emissions under Boris Johnson’s government.

The Conservative leadership contest saw candidates whittled down in a series of votes among conservative Members of Parliament (MPs). These rounds saw the elimination of the candidates most opposed to net zero targets, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch. Seemingly more ‘green’ candidates like Tom Tugendhat, who defended emissions targets and acknowledged that climate change is “one of the greatest challenges we face” have also been eliminated. With the Conservative leadership race in its final stage, Conservative party members are left with two choices, former chancellor Rishi Sunak and former foreign secretary, Liz Truss, but what of their commitments to a net-zero UK?

Sunak and Truss on Climate Policy

Reflecting the leadership race more widely, neither Sunak nor Truss have been particularly vocal on climate issues as part of their campaign efforts – perhaps this is linked to the fact that climate action is the bottom priority for Conservative party members with only 4% of Conservative party members ranking net zero as one of their three top priorities for the new leader. They also both have mixed track records on environmental policy.

Sunak recently came out in support of maintaining the UK’s net zero by 2050 target, but has been criticised for blocking green policies required for decarbonisation and watering down environmental policies, such as home insulation policy and green homes grants, while in post as chancellor. Most recently, he was criticised for missing a crucial moment to double down on net zero efforts in the context of an ongoing cost of living crisis within the UK, with campaigners arguing that ending reliance on fossil fuels would protect Brits from future energy and fuel price shocks. His voting record also suggests some level of support for a regressive climate policy, almost always voting against policies to prevent climate change, including voting against a call on the UK government to develop a plan to eliminate a substantial majority of transport emissions by 2030.

Truss, while also aiming to maintain the UK’s 2050 net zero target, has generally voted against policies aimed at preventing climate change and has called for the reconsideration of some climate policies, such as the green levy (part of the household energy bill that funds a mix of social and green programmes such as schemes that support efficiency improvements in homes and businesses) which she aims to suspend or remove. She has also slashed subsidies for solar farms in her role as environment secretary, referring to them both as ‘ugly’ and a ‘blight on the landscape’, as well as opposing the UK’s bid to host the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow under Theresa May’s government.

Risk: UK Reputation as a Leading Net Zero Nation

It has been suggested that the UK’s ambitious net zero targets will only be achievable through drastic changes both to policy direction and to societal attitudes. However, the lukewarm stances and mixed environmental records of the two finalists suggests a high likelihood of continued ambivalent and lacklustre domestic environmental policy with a possibility of backsliding, which will further impede the UK in achieving its emissions target of net zero by 2050.

Continuing to fall behind on net zero policy presents a potential risk for the Conservative government. A weak climate policy may present an opportunity for opposition parties. By modeling climate policy as a greater tenet of their campaign platforms, the opposition could sweep up voters who consider climate change to be a more salient policy issue. This is a realistic possibility, given public opinion polls consistently suggest climate change and net zero policy issues rank far higher in priority among the broader electorate than among conservative party members. It is reasonable to assume that wider public opinion would view a lukewarm climate policy under Sunak or Truss negatively and that further failures to implement the relevant policies vital for achieving the UK’s emissions targets would likely be damaging to the Conservative electoral prospects. This could be especially detrimental to the Conservative party in marginal ‘red wall’ seats, which Labour hope to re-gain, and blue wall seats, which face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats.

Further, there is a considerable risk to the UK’s image as a ‘leader in climate protection’. Boris Johnson has repeatedly cited the UK’s achievement of becoming the first major economy to adopt net zero by 2050 policy, and the UK has garnered considerable international attention following its hosting of the COP26 climate summit. However, observed failures to adopt the necessary climate legislation to meet its own targets, coupled with a predicted continued sluggishness in implementing climate policy under the leadership of either Sunak or Truss, puts the UK’s reputation as a green economy and global climate leader at considerable risk. This would not only be awkward for the UK, but may also have serious political consequences internationally, as well. Following claims that UK climate policy inspires other countries’ efforts, there is a potential risk for the UK’s projected failure in meeting its own climate targets to set a regrettable example. 

Categories: Environment, Europe

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