Will the next Prime Minister be good for the planet?

After months of headlines and scandal, Boris Johnson is to step down as the Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader in September 2022. Political Affairs Manager Adam Barnett weighs up the climate credentials of the two candidates vying to replace him – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – and offers his predictions on what to expect from each of our potential future leaders.
  Published:  22 Jul 2022    |      5 minute read

Boris Johnson’s government has a patchy record on climate, with his often-ambitious rhetoric rarely matched by action. We’ve seen some highs, like hosting the UN climate talks (COP26) and a commitment to stop funding fossil fuels abroad. But we’ve also endured many lows, such as the funding of a mega-gas project in Mozambique and the continuing flirtation with a new coal mine in West Cumbria.

Now that Conservative MPs have narrowed down Johnson’s replacement to 2 candidates – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – we can start to predict what their climate agenda may look like when one of them becomes Prime Minister on 5 September.

Rishi Sunak on climate

Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond (North Yorkshire) since 2015 and Chancellor from early 2020 until his resignation in July 2022, has been noticeably quiet on green issues while in government. His budgets have given the climate only passing mentions, and he announced the largest road building plan ever in his budget in 2020. Sunak even went as far as cutting taxes on domestic flights just days before the start of COP26.

Net zero

Sunak has said that he’s committed to achieving the net zero emissions target, but that he sees the government’s role as more one of unlocking innovation by cutting regulations that are getting in the way of innovation and the "industries of the future".

It's unclear whether that would be good for the planet or not. It could be positive in allowing zero carbon industries to flourish in the UK, or it could mean environmental and climate rules being cut – or both!

Fossil fuels

After intense political and public pressure, Sunak was forced to introduce a windfall tax on fossil fuel firms in May, in response to their record profits during the cost-of-living crisis. However, the measure included a loophole that provides a 91% tax relief on new investments in fossil fuels. In February, he also asked the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to fast track the approval of 6 new oil and gas fields in the North Sea, and in July he promised to bring back fracking "if communities want it".

During the leadership contest, Sunak has committed to a target of making the UK self-sufficient in energy production by 2045. However, he might find this hard to achieve, having also promised to ban the building of any new onshore wind farms – one of the cheapest forms of renewable, domestic electricity generation available. Sunak is instead banking on a rapid rollout of offshore wind, which is necessary but much slower to build.

Offshore wind alone can’t achieve the fast cuts on energy prices we so urgently need, nor provide the quantity of low-carbon energy required for shorter-term carbon reduction targets.

Energy efficiency

Sunak has said he'd:

  • introduce a new homes energy efficiency programme this year
  • establish a new Department of Energy that’s separate from BEIS
  • create an Energy Security Committee tasked with reforming the energy market to cut bills, which could potentially lead to a stronger focus on much-needed policies like rolling out insulation and renewables – or not.

However while Chancellor, it was reported that he was to blame for the delays to the Heat and Buildings Strategy, as well as mismanaging the delivery of the now-scrapped Green Homes Grant.

The verdict

Sunak’s track record on climate might be best described as "indifferent".

As Chancellor, Sunak was often reported to be the blocker behind a variety of climate measures. This wasn’t necessarily because he opposed climate action, but because he tended to prioritise policies which cost little to nothing, following the boom in government spending during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This approach sometimes led him to conclusions which were good for the climate, like resisting cuts to the levies on energy bills which support energy efficiency schemes (which Sunak argued would just have to be funded by government spending elsewhere). But in most cases, it has led him away from climate-friendly decisions (such as refusing the proposal by BEIS for a programme of insulating homes).

Sunak's seemingly indifferent approach to climate action has shifted during the leadership race, and he's now positioning himself as a candidate who recognises the importance of tackling climate change and who’d pursue a slow and steady, light-touch programme of climate action.

Whether that’s because he understands the potentially dire electoral consequences of being seen as a climate sceptic by the Conservative party ultimately the general public, or whether he has genuinely moved climate up his priority list, will be made obvious by his actions if elected Prime Minister.

Liz Truss on climate

Liz Truss has been the MP for South-West Norfolk since 2010 and is the current Foreign Secretary, having previously been Secretary for International Trade (2019-21) and Environment (2014-16).

Truss’s previous record on climate has been undeniably poor. As Environment Secretary she cut subsidies for solar farms after describing them as a "blight on the landscape", and as Trade Secretary she dropped mentions of the Paris Agreement from the text of the UK-Australia trade deal in order to "get it over the line". She’s also a vocal supporter of Heathrow expansion, and at the start of the COP26 conference said that the public should keep flying and keep eating meat.

Like Sunak, Truss has made a slight pivot during the leadership contest towards being in favour of action on climate, most likely to win over the support of moderate Conservative MPs and party members. However, her policy announcements have been contradictory and as yet don't seem to be underpinned by an overarching vision or set of ideological or fiscal principles.

Net zero

Truss has said she supports maintaining the net zero target, but would review how it’s delivered and encourage it to be done "in a way that doesn’t harm people or businesses" and that's more "market friendly". In conservative terms, that means avoiding policies which put any additional regulatory burden or cost on either group, with climate and environmental protections often perceived as doing so.

Fossil fuels

Truss said that the war in Ukraine showed that reliance on fossil fuels was "unsustainable", yet would review the moratorium on fracking to "let communities decide", and rely more on gas as a "transition fuel" (to a low-carbon future), as well as allow fracking if communities "decide they want it".

Truss has also promised to introduce a temporary moratorium on the green levy on energy bills (an environmental charge on energy bills), though she hasn’t specified which levies would be suspended or how long the moratorium would last.

This could put the environmental initiatives that the levy funds (including energy efficiency schemes and the deployment of renewable technologies) at risk of either losing funding or needing to be funded from money found elsewhere.

The verdict

Truss’s general economic plan is to focus on reducing taxes, pursuing economic growth, and "delivering levelling up in a conservative way". The pursuit of tax cuts means that public spending could need to be reduced in other areas in order to pay for it, putting environmental initiatives at risk of the chop.

Truss’s lack of support for action on climate while in government, as well as her vocal endorsement of climate-wrecking projects such as Heathrow and fracking, don’t paint a hopeful picture for what her government’s climate agenda would look like.

Conservative voters and climate

Climate-friendly measures make clear political sense. Energy efficiency schemes, reduced dependency on fossil fuels and a rapid rollout of renewables would help cut energy bills, tackle the cost-of-living crisis, and create jobs. The public would be able to see the tangible benefits that the delivery of these would make way before a next General Election, which could be 2 years away.

Action on climate is also what the voters want. Recent polling by the Conservative Environment Network showed that:

  • two thirds of Conservative voters are proud of the UK’s role in tackling climate change
  • a majority think achieving net zero would be good for the economy
  • 27% of 2019 voters would ditch them if they weakened the net zero target.

A poll of 3000 voters in marginal Red Wall seats put tackling climate change and the environment as their second most important issue, with 53% wanting more action on climate change – and only 9% wanting less.

So far this year, we’ve taken the government to court over the inadequacy of 2 of its climate strategies (and won). We’ve helped local groups secure key changes to minerals plans through our work on planning regulations and grassroots activism. And we’ve been hard at work forging relationships across the political spectrum to sure up support for our efforts to stop new coal mines and prevent further funding of fossil fuels.

Irrespective of who the prime minister is, or whether the party in power is Labour, Green, Liberal Democrats or Conservative, we’re committed to holding our leaders to account over the plans and promises that impact our planet.

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