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Will Rishi Sunak abandon net zero in a bid for the Tory leadership?

The UK Chancellor would be wise to ignore anti-green campaigners if he wants to become the next prime minister.

By Philippa Nuttall

At Cop26 last November, the UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, reassured attendees that he had a plan: he would leverage “a historic wall of capital for the net-zero transition around the world” that would deliver “fresher water to drink” and “cleaner air to breathe” for “everyone, everywhere”. Today (8 February) we learned that part of that plan includes firing up six North Sea oil and gas fields.

The decision, if it comes to pass, will certainly not help the world wean itself off fossil fuels over the next 40 years. What is even more worrying is if that is the first in a series of concessions to the small, but increasingly noisy, anti-net-zero brigade in the Tory party.

Where Sunak stands on climate change is unclear. He played his part in the vision of Britain as a global climate leader and broker in Glasgow. At the Treasury, he has done little to suggest he has been on the same “road to Damascus” as the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in terms of appreciating the significance of climate science, but neither has he shown signs of climate denial.

“Rishi Sunak has not hindered climate action, but he has not been a champion,” said Chris Venables from Green Alliance, a UK think tank. “Nothing Sunak or the Treasury has said is inconsistent with what the government has said on net zero,” agreed Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. People suggesting otherwise are “cherry-picking political statements”, he suggested.

But times have changed since Cop.

Johnson is no longer in the headlines for his climate diplomacy skills, but for clinging on to power after “partygate” and the shenanigans that have followed. The gas and cost-of-living crises have replaced the climate crisis in many people’s minds. And the Brexit brigade is on the move again: having helped pitch Britain out of the EU and into a new reality with no discernible advantages, many of the same voices are now turning to the net-zero agenda as a new focus of attack. Run by the Tory MPs Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) is playing fast and loose with the truth in an increasingly strident attempt to push back climate action and push forward fossil fuels.

Given this context, it is deeply concerning if any potential successor to Johnson shows signs of wavering on the climate action sidelines. “The fact Rishi Sunak has a picture of Nigel Lawson on his office wall will have many energy experts slapping their foreheads in frustration, as few organisations have been more wrong about energy and climate policy over the past decade than Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation,” said UK climate consultant Richard Black. 

Sunak’s apparent green light for oilfields could also be a worrying sign that he has more in common with Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor than previously thought.

“The one thing you look for above all in a chancellor is economic literacy, and it’s not clear whether Sunak understands the real economics of clean energy or cleaves to a broken model from the past,” said Black. “His lukewarm approach to the issue and his recent courting of gas companies suggests that either he really doesn’t get it, or he’s playing to a political audience.”

Most commentators seem to believe that Sunak does get climate change, but that the issue isn’t his priority. How far down his to-do list he would let it slip, however, remains to be seen.

“While anti-net-zero voices have become more vocal, far more Conservative MPs are signing up to champion the UK’s decarbonisation ambition,” insisted Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN). Nearly 125 MPs have joined CEN’s parliamentary caucus; about 18 MPs are believed to be in the NZSG. “The anti-net-zero lot are part of the mix,” said Venables, but agreed this is only part of the story. “There will also be pressure on the leadership race from Conservative MPs to get candidates signed up to green policies.”

And while there are certain similarities between the arguments and the tactics used to peddle anti-net-zero messaging and Brexit, there are also many differences.

“It is legitimate to debate what is the most affordable way to meet zero; affordability should be key to all policies,” said Hall. “We need to communicate about the economic benefits of net zero, reindustrialisation and job creation.”

One of the failures of the Remain campaign was the inability to show at a local level how Britain benefited from membership of the EU, but the economic advantages of net zero for the whole country are much easier to demonstrate, said Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, which works with businesses to build a low-carbon economy.

He cited the success of the offshore wind industry, in which clear policies have created a thriving industry employing 26,000 people today and as many as 70,000 by 2026. This is in addition to the first major electric vehicle factory under construction in the north-east of England, which should create 3,000 jobs by 2028. Likewise, insulating homes to reduce energy use and emissions could give work to 150,000 people across Britain by 2030.

“The worst possible thing to do with regards to ‘levelling up’ would be to abandon net zero,” said Molho. “Not going ahead would damage the UK economy long-term.”

“We need to stand firm on net zero,” said Ward. “I hope Sunak understands that.”

To help make it clear exactly what is at stake, ministers who understand and support climate action need to shout much more loudly and clearly about the benefits of net zero to ensure that people more worried about rising bills than higher temperatures are not misled by false arguments that will cause greater pain for everyone in the long run.

“When was the last time you heard any minister, other than the Prime Minister, say that ‘delivering net zero will cut bills, create jobs and reduce the amount of funding we give Vladimir Putin every year?’” questioned Black. Or, as Sunak said at Cop: “We’re not simply talking about numbers on a page. We’re talking about making a tangible difference to people’s lives.”

[See also: Are companies tricking us with their net-zero claims?]

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