This Net Zero Week, Pagefield Senior Executive Harry Gault looks at whether the Government has made sufficient progress on its net zero targets and asks to what extent it will influence voters at the ballot box.
When Rishi Sunak entered Number 10 in October 2022, perceptions of him being a ‘competent’ and ‘managerial’ technocrat were welcomed after the chaos of Truss and drama of Johnson. Less than a year on, however, there are growing concerns that the Prime Minister has been anything but competent in acting on climate change.
As an issue, net zero has become a dividing line in the Conservative Party. The formation of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), led by chair Craig Mackinlay and made up of backbench Conservative MPs who oppose many of the Government’s net zero policies, underlines the scale of competing interests in the Party. But to what extent does net zero matter to voters?
Public perceptions of net zero
Since July 2019, YouGov has conducted a running tracker asking respondents how they think the Government is handling climate change. The most recent update shows 46% of people think the Government isn’t doing or spending enough to try and reduce carbon emissions, while only 14% think it’s getting the balance right.
Driving these views seems to be a feeling that the UK is falling behind on the world stage. Recent polling from Opinium and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) suggests there is significant support for the Government putting big money behind net zero goals. The poll found that “renewable energy and green technology” is the sector seen as most likely to create long-term growth for the UK economy.
The UK’s receding climate leadership
With the current rate of inflation running at 8.7% in the UK, people are looking to the US and the EU and asking why the UK isn’t demonstrating similar ambition. President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has directed federal spending towards reducing carbon emissions while aiming to catalyse investment in the US’s domestic manufacturing capacity.
Similarly, though admittedly less ambitious than the almost $400bn Inflation Reduction Act, the EU announced its Green Deal Industrial Plan, which aims to make it easier for sustainable companies to access tax breaks, while redirecting cash towards clean-tech industries and relaxing state aid rules.
Take for example Sunak’s reluctance to roll out meaningful planning change to allow more onshore wind projects in England, widely recognised as one of the cheapest forms of energy generation. As traditional jobs in industry are replaced, people are rightly asking why the UK appears content to sit back as other nations adapt their domestic manufacturing capacity to the needs of a green economy. This could result in the loss of huge numbers of jobs and billions of pounds of domestic and overseas investment. Not only that, but it could also mean alienating a large section of the voting public.
An exodus of Green Tories
The frustration is palpable across SW1 too, with ‘green’ Tories increasingly turning against Sunak’s Government.
In the report published by the Climate Change Committee last week – which is chaired by Lord Deben, former Conservative Environment Secretary – weak leadership was blamed for the “inertia” infiltrating progress on net zero, and the Committee said that the UK had “lost its global leadership” on climate action.
Separately, Lord Zac Goldsmith, another prominent green Tory, quit as Environment Minister as he suggested the Prime Minister was “simply uninterested” in the environment. Goldsmith took particular issue with the Government “effectively abandoning” a pledge to spend £11.6bn of the aid budget over five years on the issue.
Disquiet over Sunak’s perceived lack of desire to advance climate policy isn’t only reserved to the upper chamber, with the former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore – author of a government-commissioned report on net zero strategy – criticising senior Tories like Grant Shapps for accusing Labour of “becoming the political wing of Just Stop Oil” and “other eco-extremists”. As Skidmore pointed out, “it is simply not an extreme opinion to believe that one day we are going to have to end our use of fossil fuels.”
Sunak entered Number 10 with one of the most unenviable in-trays imaginable and a plethora of complex issues all vying for his attention. But with an election looming next year, his reticence to prioritise the biggest issue of our time could have consequences at the ballot box. It is crucial for him to recognise the urgency of the situation and address the concerns surrounding net zero, rather than catering to a vocal minority within his own party. The UK must catch up with other nations and embrace the opportunities presented by a green economy for long-term growth and prosperity.
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