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15 April 2024

The Conservatives no longer conserve

We need a long-term, mission-oriented approach to get to net zero. But the Tory party has abandoned leadership on the issue.

By Chris Skidmore

Just over a hundred days ago, I took the difficult personal decision to resign as a member of parliament, in protest at the second reading of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill in parliament. As the former energy minister responsible for signing the UK’s commitment to net zero into law, this legislation allowing for annual new oil and gas licensing rounds was not only a step too far, it was a leap away from the commitments and leadership that the UK had previously been proud to represent.

We have de-aligned ourselves with the UN Conference of Parties, the International Energy Agency and the government’s own independent Climate Change Committee. We should recognise that while we still need oil and gas to 2050, any new, additional oil and gas would go against any future net zero commitment. It was because of this that I came to the conclusion that I could no longer support a government I had been a part of for 14 years. As I stated in my resignation letter, matters had reached a point where to stay would have meant I condoned the actions of a government I represented.

But it also marked a point where the Conservative Party ceased to be a party that seeks to conserve. By abandoning its climate leadership, and ultimately abandoning its claim to conservation, the party has ceased to represent a vitally important philosophical belief that was previously core to its identity.

Bertrand Russell once wrote that one of the most difficult decisions we all face is when to burn a bridge, and when to cross one. I knew that to be able to fully commit to net zero and to delivering on climate action, I would have to burn a bridge that I never imagined I would.

I hope we one day reach a stage at which, looking back, we realise how tragic it was that we could not commit to a cross-party agreement on an end date for the future supply of oil and gas. Net zero and decarbonisation are here to stay. It is now woven into the fabric of markets and investor decisions. Those investments can and will go elsewhere. Growth will go elsewhere. Jobs will go elsewhere.

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The Mission Zero review was clear that we need to take a long-term, mission-orientated approach that focuses on the outcomes, the real opportunities to deliver change. There were 129 recommendations: over 100 of which have been accepted by the government. But importantly there were also ten, ten-year missions that could help to deliver a manufacturing and regeneration revolution in the UK if only we provided the certainty, the clarity, the consistency and continuity of policy direction that is lacking.

Time is slipping away. So too is that investment, and with it the growth that we are instead witnessing across the Atlantic. Just last week, new figures revealed the scale of the prize that a green industrial revolution can bring in the US: for every $1 dollar so far invested in green industry, $5.47 dollars have been invested by the private sector. Solar investment is up 50 per cent in a single year; battery investment up 114 per cent.

Change is here, it’s just a question of how we manage change, for better or worse. Delivering on decarbonisation and emissions reduction is not and never has been about a distant 2050 target. It’s why you cannot suddenly let up when you have made progress, thinking all will be fine.

It must be 2030 that counts for climate action. Indeed, whoever wins the next election, it will be under their stewardship that the UK either succeeds or fails in meeting its national determined contributions (NDC) commitment of 68 per cent emissions reduction by 2030. We need to halve global emissions by 2030, a mere 68 and a bit months away.

It must also be to 2030 that we all, regardless of party, have a responsibility and a duty to do all we can to strive and work to reduce our emissions. While we may be just on track in the UK, having already halved our emissions since 1990, many other counties need greater help and support to deliver the energy transition that the UK has shown is possible. Net zero for the UK, the first G7 country to sign that commitment into law, should be a guide to all other countries of what can and what must be achieved.  

We each have our own opportunity to help deliver the mission that is required to meet our, and indeed other countries’, net zero emissions reduction commitments. Carbon dioxide knows no borders. We need a just transition, but that too must involve both allies and strategic competitors working together on what has become a common mission for the future of humanity. 

Having been involved closely for nearly a decade in government, and in policy at its centre for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned the lesson – painfully at times – that there isn’t time to waste. Events move fast, and the momentum is there to be seized. As I recognised in the net zero review, to delay only costs more.

So I’m keen, having burned one bridge, to cross another. I already stated in my resignation letter that I want to focus my commitment solely on net zero and the energy transition. But I also want to help those countries, nations and regions that need further support to help deliver the necessary policy frameworks and transition plans they need to decarbonise, and to assist in helping them achieve the necessary inward investment needed to make their own net zero journeys possible.

To that end, I have helped form a new international-facing organisation, Better Earth, that will seek to help countries across the world deliver on their decarbonisation plans, to provide the support and investment needed to make emissions reductions not just a hope but a reality.

It is essential that we blend both advice on how countries can improve on their climate commitments, with the actual delivery and implementation of projects that can help emissions reductions before 2030. 

After a decade of making policy, it is time for me to help put it into practice. Tony Benn said he left parliament to devote more time to politics. I have left parliament to now devote more time to what I consider the only politics that really matters at this moment in time: the politics of climate action to prevent our planet from warming beyond control. There is much to be done, and no time to waste.

[See also: The UK could still be a world leader on decarbonisation]

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