The Conservative Party’sHostile EnvironmentTo the Climate Emergency
The next Prime Minister looks set to sabotage the UK’s response to climate change, reports Thomas Perrett
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Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister was characterised by grandiose rhetoric about the urgency of tackling climate change, backed up with meagre practical action.
Since the COP26 summit in Glasgow, the UK has approved several new fossil fuel developments, and climate campaigners Uplift concluded earlier this year that up to 46 such projects could be approved between 2022 and 2025.
Johnson’s Government also failed to phase out a controversial coal mine in Cumbria, which British Steel argued was obsolete due to its high sulphur content, and scrapped the Green Homes Grant, which offered households up to £10,000 in grants to install insulation or low-carbon heating, sparking criticism from government advisory body the Climate Change Committee.
Additionally, openDemocracy revealed that Johnson’s administration had accepted £1 million in donations from the oil and gas industry.
Despite the clear inadequacies of Johnson’s attempts to spur the decarbonisation of the economy and lead the country’s divestment from polluting energy sources, he was widely viewed as a sincere environmentalist who understood the realities of climate science and the devastating consequences of ecological breakdown. This was recognised by Tom Burke, co-founder of the environmentalist E3G think tank, who told the Guardian that “the environment was seen as a Johnson priority, not a Tory priority”.
The climate convictions of those looking to succeed him, however, are questionable.
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A recent report entitled ‘A Charter for Tax Cuts’, published by the Thatcherite pressure group Conservative Way Forward (CWF), founded by prominent climate change sceptic MP Steve Baker, has been endorsed by two Conservative leadership hopefuls: Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and Attorney General Suella Braverman.
Both candidates have expressed enthusiasm for the report’s main objectives, which include cutting VAT on fuel taxes, and slashing green levies intended to bring down the costs of sustainable technologies. Speaking at an event hosted by CWF, Zahawi – who earned £1.3 million as chief strategist of Kurdish oil company Gulf Keystone Petroleum while serving as an MP – stated: “I will abolish VAT and green levies, temporarily, for two years”.
“We will continue to meet our net zero target for 2050 but this is a moment of emergency and we have to act like it,” he added.
Braverman last week stated that “in order to deal with the energy crisis we need to suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050,” adding: “if we keep it up, especially before businesses and families can adjust, our economy will end up with net zero growth”.
Speaking at the CWF event, she took aim at the alleged “multibillion pound public wastage” in the use of taxpayers’ money, advocating for a significant shrinkage in the size of the state, arguing that “they say that the tax burden is too high and that cutting taxes too quickly is not the serious thing to do. But in a cost of living crisis with spiralling costs. We know there is no alternative”.
A Precarious Future for the Planet
Steve Baker, who runs the CWF, has an extensive history of espousing climate scepticism, and has ties to organisations promoting explicit climate science denial.
Indeed, he is the co-founder of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), a backbench pressure group which back in February wrote a letter to The Telegraph calling on the Prime Minister to end the “unconservative” ban on fracking. Baker has described the science behind climate change as “contestable” and “sometimes propagandised”.
Since March of 2021, Baker has been a trustee at the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) a climate science denying think tank which has prominent institutional links to the NZSG.
Conservative Way Forward is intimately connected with this web of net zero scepticism and advocacy for Thatcherite economics. The author of the aforementioned report, Julian Jessop, is a fellow at free market think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA).
That several Conservative leadership candidates have chosen to speak at an event hosted by CWF, and to express support for its policy proposals, indicates that even the rhetorical commitments to net zero espoused by Boris Johnson may soon give way to a more pronounced disdain for environmental objectives.
Moreover, several other Conservative leadership candidates have demonstrated an active hostility to the ambitious spending and targeted investment required to adequately decarbonise the economy.
Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, a favourite to succeed Johnson as Prime Minister, often diverged significantly from Johnson’s net zero approach.
Indeed, Treasury documents leaked to The Observer back in October stated that “more green investment is likely to attract diminishing returns, reducing the positive impact of ever more investment on GDP. Some green investments could displace other, more productive, investment opportunities”.
It added that, “Climate action in the UK can lead to economic activity moving abroad if it directly leads to costs increasing, and it is more profitable to produce in countries with less stringent climate policies”.
Other measures announced by Sunak, including a Spring Statement which cut fuel taxes by 5p per litre but failed to introduce substantive solutions to the cost of living crisis, to expand home insulation or to increase investment in clean energy, reflect the former Chancellor’s electoral priorities; to prioritise the votes of wealthier motorists over the rest of the population – and the environment.
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Sunak was also scrutinised for failing to issue a windfall tax on oil and gas firms experiencing record profits. When a tax of 25% on such companies was finally implemented, it coincided with an 80% tax break on new fossil fuel investment, which according to Greenpeace political campaigner Ami McCarthy “nearly doubles the tax relief available to fossil fuel giants, meaning the more investment they make, the less tax they pay”.
“The Chancellor has chosen to turbo-charge climate destruction. This isn’t just a bad move, it is completely unjustifiable,” McCarthy added.
Penny Mordaunt, a favourite among Conservative Party members, has also received substantial donations from the chairman of the GWPF, which is described by investigative outfit DeSmog as “the UK’s principal climate science denial campaign group”.
As the cost of living crisis accelerates, and inflation reaches a four-decade high, Boris Johnson’s brand of economically interventionist conservatism is losing its popularity in the Conservative Party. Many of the Tory leadership candidates, committed to lower taxes and to shrinking the size of the administrative state, regard net zero and the decarbonisation of the economy as an impediment to economic dynamism and commercial prosperity.
The new economic approach advocated by Conservative Way Forward, characterised by curtailing the power of the unions and slashing taxes which subsidise clean energy, appears to have gained a foothold among many Conservative leadership frontrunners.
Although Johnson was far from a committed environmentalist, in the aftermath of his departure, the future of net zero looks more precarious than ever.