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14 July 2022

Will the Tory leadership race kill net zero?

Candidates support climate action in theory, but their tax-cutting policies could see it undermined by default.

By India Bourke

The Conservative leadership race is dividing observers, as moments of suspense often do, into optimists and cynics. And on the question of what the winner will do about climate change, the divide is proving especially pronounced.

For green optimists within the Tory party and beyond, the fact that environmental protection is popular with the public is seen as a safeguard against backsliding. No future leader, when it comes to a national vote, they claim, would risk ignoring the fact that 78 per cent of Conservative voters support preserving the world for future generations, according to research by the centre-right think tank Onward. 

They stress the achievements of past Tory governments, such as enshrining in law the policy to emit no more greenhouse gases than we absorb by 2050. They take heart from the notion that, in the words of the peer Zac Goldsmith, market forces are “racing one way only” (ie in favour of cheap, secure renewable energy). And while candidates Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat have said they would either delay or revise the UK’s net zero target, optimists point to Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss’s stated commitment to keeping it.

“Polling consistently shows that backsliding on environmental commitments will cost the Conservatives support in marginal seats in the Red and Blue Walls,” Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, said. The implication is that no serious candidate, or party, would pursue such an electoral disaster.

Yet the problem with action on climate change is that not enough is almost as bad as none at all. Of the remaining eight candidates in the leadership election, only Penny Mordaunt has so far clearly presented a positive vision of a net-zero future that would be a boon to jobs and the promise of levelling up. Most of the others have given the subject lip service, alongside promises of uncosted tax cuts (Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss) and scrapping green levies on energy bills (Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss), all of which would likely slow the transition to renewable energy. Green levies could be moved into general taxation, but the implication is still that green reform is partly responsible for the energy price crisis — instead of highlighting how essential it is to the solution.

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Badenoch, meanwhile, is dragging net zero firmly into the toxic realm of culture wars. Pursuing the target would be an act of “unilateral economic disarmament”, she said: a choice of words that is both false (countries making up over 90 per cent of the global economy have signed up to achieving net zero) and highly provocative at a time of war on European soil.

Plus, even if Badenoch doesn’t win, her newly proven popularity with the party membership will likely also encourage greater prominence for the climate-sceptic views pushed by the likes of Steve Baker, co-founder of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Conservative MPs. As Professor Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist at the University of Kent, put it the party’s “drift to the right” means that “nothing is off the table” in terms of climate debate. It’s a depressing thought, since action, not debate, should be the order of the heatwave-addled day.

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At best, relative inertia on the climate and environment lies ahead if the underwhelming tone of the leadership race is anything to go by. The final two candidates may support net zero in theory, but once in power pressure to cut taxes could undermine the target by default. 

[See also: As the heatwave rages, Tory candidates are spineless on climate change]

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