Neither of the candidates in the running to become the next Prime Minister can back up their rhetoric with actions on the climate emergency

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This year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave its starkest warning yet, in a report stating that climate change “is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet”.

We’ve seen extreme weather events around the world, as well as close to home. Last month, the UK recorded its hottest ever temperature of 40.2°C.  

For those who would claim we’ve just had a hot summer, it’s wise to heed the words of Met Office chief scientist Professor Stephen Belcher, who has said “it’s virtually impossible for the UK to experience 40°C in an undisrupted climate, but climate change driven by greenhouse gases has made these extreme temperatures possible, and we’re actually seeing this possibility now”.

As the Conservative leadership contest rumbles on, the climate crisis has barely figured in a race dominated by the economy and ‘culture war’ issues. In light of this, it’s worth considering the environmental records of both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak and what the victory of either might mean for the country’s approach to the climate emergency.

Little Attention

Truss, a former Environment Secretary, described solar farms as a “blight on the landscape” in 2014, when she removed subsidies for them. Friends of the Earth criticised the move and its justification – that they displaced food production. The environmental group said that solar energy and crop production could exist “hand in hand” with one another. 

She now commands the support of notable anti-green Conservative MPs such as Steve Baker and has links to free-market think tanks that question net zero. Unsurprisingly, Truss has also indicated support for fracking in the past and during the leadership race has said she is in favour “if local communities support it”. 

Sunak has similarly stated that he would support fracking where communities are in favour. A position, which begs the question – where are these communities? Fracking has received overwhelming resistance wherever it has been proposed in the UK. 

The former Chancellor has restated his backing of the goal of achieving net-zero by 2050, but has at the same time made clear that he would scrap the proposed relaxation of restrictions on developing new onshore wind power. He has also said that achieving net zero “can’t mean neglecting our energy security”, which would potentially indicate continued support for oil and gas extraction.

One area that has been touched upon during the race has been energy efficiency, which led Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, to observe that while Sunak and Truss have “made warm noises about the importance of reducing energy waste, such as home insulation, the lack of tangible commitments to deliver on this meant we can’t be sure they will actually take it seriously”.

The ConservativeClimate Climbdown

Sascha Lavin

Scrutiny of the environmental policies of both candidates has been scant at best, with the BBC coming under fire for only including one climate question during its leadership debate, about individual action on climate change rather than what their approach in office would be. 

What little attention has been given to the environment during the contest has painted a concerning picture for anyone wanting to see the UK take serious action on the crisis, restore wildlife and move towards a low-carbon future in a workable timeframe. Digging into the voting records of Sunak and Truss only backs up this view. 

Poor Voting Records

Between 2011 and 2020, Liz Truss ‘generally voted against measures to tackle climate change’ according to parliamentary tracking website TheyWorkForYou. This breaks down as three votes for such measures and 17 against, with five absences.

These included a vote against requiring ministers to have due regard for the net zero by 2050 target when taking actions including the setting up of agricultural subsidy schemes. She has also voted not to reduce the permitted emissions rate of new homes. 

Rishi Sunak’s voting record on climate change is similarly bad, if not worse, with TheyWorkForYou indicating that he ‘almost always voted against measures to tackle climate change’. This boils down as zero votes for, 12 against and three absences. 

Sunak and Truss have both voted against financial incentives for low-carbon energy generation. 

While both candidates make easy statements about achieving net zero by 2050, they have patchy records on the environment. What is clear is that, whoever wins, the anti-green lobby in the Conservative Party is strong. It would appear that more of them are supporting Liz Truss, but they are likely to exert influence whoever wins. 

A Truss victory currently looks like the most likely outcome. Given her history of supporting fracking, opposing measures to tackle climate change, her opposition to solar farms and the parts of the party she draws some of her support from, there will likely be huge challenges ahead for achieving a just transition to a low-carbon economy with her as Prime Minister. 

Equally, having also indicated his qualified support for fracking, it is clear that there is no obvious benefits to Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister from an environmental perspective. 

Both Truss and Sunak had senior roles in a Government that has been accused of backsliding on its environmental commitments and failing to take the big decisions that would move us towards a low-carbon economy. It’s little surprise that the climate emergency has been so low on the priority list during thus leadership election.

Even with Boris Johnson gone, the case for significant change to reduce emissions, restore nature and move us towards net zero will need to be made more strongly than ever. Who will do it, if not his successor?


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