A summer of record-breaking global temperatures and climate disaster should have provided the space for Rishi Sunak’s “road to Damascus” moment. But the Prime Minister hasn’t been brave enough to look up. Instead he granted 100 new oil and gas licences, injected huge uncertainty into the UK’s net zero commitment, and blew the opportunity to secure a single new offshore wind farm in the latest auction round.
The culmination of Sunak’s anti-green drive came yesterday as he skipped the UN leaders’ no-nonsense climate meeting, deciding instead to dilute, delay and diminish the UK’s net zero commitments via a Downing Street broadcast to the nation. Far from making long-term decisions for a brighter future, his speech, which included pushing back the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars, looked more like abrupt misjudgements for short-term political gain.
Rebuilding Britain’s broken energy system based on renewables should be the government’s priority, particularly given the failures of the current one. Five million people are in debt to their energy supplier, even before we head into winter, with many owing more than £1,200 for electricity and nearly £1,000 for gas. Nearly eight million people have had to borrow money to cover their bills in the first half of this year alone. And more than a million children have lived in a household this year that went without heating, hot water and electricity. By ditching more of the “green crap”, as David Cameron notoriously referred to it, the government has chosen to ignore this crisis, and made decisions that could cost households collectively up to £8bn in higher bills over the next decade.
[See also: How popular is Rishi Sunak?]
Any “new approach to net zero” cannot be considered legitimate while “maxing out” the North Sea’s declining basin is included in it. Not least because the Climate Change Committee, and countless other credible bodies, has been unequivocal in its assertion that the expansion of fossil fuel energy is not in line with net zero. These projects are also deeply unfair.
Rosebank – the UK’s largest undeveloped oil field – is 90 per cent oil. Most of it is likely for export, benefiting only the fields’ owners, of which the Norwegian state-owned energy giant Equinor is the majority holder. This means that hard-working households will not experience lower energy bills because of it, yet it is claimed they’re being asked to pay over 90 per cent of the field’s development costs in the form of £3.75bn in tax breaks. No wonder opposition to Rosebank is so widespread: more than 50 cross-party MPs and peers have called for the project to be halted, and the Conservative MP, Derek Thomas, added his voice against giving Rosebank the greenlight just last week.
In pandering to a tiny group of Conservative backbenchers who are out of step with the country and geopolitics, the Prime Minister has done more than create a dividing line between him and the opposition parties. He has given environmentally-minded Tories a reason to criticise the government even more vociferously. Chris Skidmore, the former energy minister who signed net zero into law, has, along with other backbenchers, not ruled out the possibility of submitting letters of no confidence in Sunak’s leadership. Zac Goldsmith, who in June resigned as an environment minister, has called for an early general election. And Simon Clarke, levelling-up secretary under Liz Truss, has been reminding colleagues of the support for green policies in Red Wall seats. Borisx Johnson’s intervention, in which he warned the government to guarantee investor certainty, suggests the net zero volcano that the Conservative Party has been dancing on might just be about to erupt.
But weaponising green policies is not smart politics for a government facing a steep uphill battle to retain power at the next election. This is especially so in a country like Britain where concern for the environment is consistently a top priority for voters. Analysis by the think tank Onward suggests that rowing back on net zero would cost the Conservative’s more than a million votes. A reactive Channel 4 poll to the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday showed over 40 per cent of voters are now less likely to put their faith in the Conservatives.
Sunak must understand that attempting to replicate the climate wars of the former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, embodied by his famous obsession with coal, and complacency towards decarbonisation, will end the same way it did for his Liberal-National coalition: in electoral defeat.
[See also: Rishi Sunak has left Boris Johnson behind]