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LONDON — Bashing solar farms and scrapping green taxes might excite the Tory faithful — but the message Liz Truss is hearing from senior Conservative strategists is that pulling the plug on net zero would not be politically wise.
While the U.K. Conservative Party front-runner has promised during the current leadership campaign to “double down” on the U.K.’s goal to zero out its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, her most prominent musings on actual climate policy have been to express doubts about the “depressing” spread of solar power “paraphernalia” on agricultural land, and to pledge to scrap levies on energy bills supporting clean power and home insulation.
Such anti-green signaling has earned applause from the right-wing press and climate-skeptic Tory parliamentarians, and has hit the spot too with the Conservative grassroots — Truss is widely expected to be confirmed as the leader, and so Britain’s next prime minister, when the result of the membership ballot is announced Monday.
But it would not be a winning strategy in government, said James Frayne, the founder of polling consultancy Public First, whose research is closely watched by senior Conservatives involved in policymaking.
“If you’re looking basically to maximize votes, there’s no point in going in this direction,” said Frayne. Even with an ongoing pandemic, looming recession and a war-driven energy crunch, climate change remains “a tier-one issue for young professionals and a high tier-two issue for everybody else, including working class voters.”
If, as polls suggest, Truss wins her leadership battle against former Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Monday, she will be confronted by three climate-related realities likely to guide her medium-term choices: a transition toward clean energy which is already well underway; a cataclysmic energy crisis; and an electorate broadly supportive of action on climate change.
Her first priority in government will undoubtedly be to bring much-needed bill relief to households and businesses. She’s promised action on that front within the first week of taking office. But even if she deals with the acute price crisis, Truss will face a more fundamental question: How to ensure the ongoing security of the nation’s energy supply?
Truss has indicated her desire to embrace home-grown supplies of all energy sources — except perhaps solar, which is currently nine times cheaper than gas, having plummeted in cost over the past decade to become, alongside wind, the cheapest form of power. Her proposals include ending a U.K.-wide moratorium on fracking — albeit with requirements for local community buy-in — which party insiders suggest could be one of her early moves in No. 10.
Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent a shot across the bows of his would-be successor last week, warning fracking was “not going to be the panacea that some people suggest.”
According to reporting from the Times, Truss also wants to issue new licensing rounds for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea. That prospect was immediately slammed by Greenpeace U.K.’s chief scientist Doug Parr as a “gift to the fossil fuel giants already making billions from this crisis.”
These new licenses will be of limited assistance to the U.K.’s broader energy needs, however. The additional supply from new projects would take years to hit the market and be “relatively small in comparison to the overall level of energy demand,” said Josh Buckland, a former energy policy adviser to recent Conservative governments in No. 10 Downing Street, the Treasury and the business department.
“The biggest driver of the current energy challenge is obviously the availability of gas, and the price of gas,” he said. “So really, the key medium term question for the government is: how do you reduce your reliance on gas?”
Where the public sits
Nevertheless, a vociferous campaign blaming the recent increase in energy bills on the U.K.’s net zero policy has been propagated by right-wing think tanks, media and several prominent Tories, including Truss-backers — and former ministers — David Frost and Steve Baker. Baker did not want to be interviewed for this article.
If Truss becomes prime minister, climate advocates and the Labour opposition are watching for the appearance of such faces in key roles around her Cabinet table. Such appointments could indicate that Truss intends to make climate policy one of the so-called “culture war” issues which featured prominently in the early stages of her leadership campaign.
For Labour, that may prove a double-edged sword. Polling indicates that public support for the net zero target is strong — 61 percent of Brits support the policy, versus just 14 percent who oppose it, according to a poll organized by Onward, a center-right Conservative think tank — and Labour strategists believe their party will always be viewed as greener than the Tories. Conservatives like Frayne say any backsliding by the Tories therefore carries significant electoral risk.
“The number of people that are very, very green-skeptic is tiny,” said Frayne. “Even people who are very worried about their money always say the same thing — ‘we’ve got to do something for our children and grandchildren.’”
But a hard-nosed political strategy which emphasized the cost of green measures and scapegoated clean energy for the nation’s economic problems would undoubtedly test public support for the finer details of climate policy. It’s a zero sum political fight that can be summed up by two competing Twitter hashtags: #costofnetzero vs. #costofnotzero.
Such a prospect has some climate advocates and Labour officials worried that public support for net zero may prove skin deep, and that the policies required to achieve it could easily be framed as interventionist or too expensive. Labour’s research indicates the finer policy details of how to reach net zero are arguments yet to be won in some parts of the community.
Frayne, however, insisted green levies remain “way, way, way, down” on the list of things voters believe are making them poorer during the current crisis.
Another signal from which some green Tories are taking encouragement is the prospect of current Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng becoming chancellor.
“On energy, I’m told she listens very closely to Kwasi Kwarteng,” said Sam Hall, the director of the Conservative Environment Network. Kwarteng has “shown he is a believer in net zero,” Hall added. “And he’s correctly analyzed the current energy crisis as a gas crisis — and that the way out of that is to get off gas more quickly.”
Truss’ personal views remain unclear. During the current leadership campaign she has given little indication that she was indeed “an environmentalist before it was fashionable,” as she told the Conservative Environment Network in a green manifesto that failed to outline much in the way of green policy.
More significantly, as chief secretary to the Treasury in the dying days of Theresa May’s administration, she is said to have opposed the 2050 net zero target, and the U.K.’s hosting of COP26. A former cabinet colleague said: “She’s going to be largely uninterested in the environment [as PM], because that romantic part of the Conservative movement, which is significant, doesn’t spring in her breast.”
But if Truss ultimately decides that beating Russian President Vladimir Putin means building a home-grown industry providing stable, affordable energy, then she may not need to be a net zero evangelist to deliver the net zero goods. That’s certainly what green Tories, climate advocates and officials in Whitehall are hoping.
“I’m confident that the pressure of this winter — and probably the next couple of winters in terms of continued high energy bills and fears about energy security — will drive a lot of this transition,” said Hall.
The pressure of soaring bills is not the only climate policy hurdle the presumptive prime minister will have to leap in her first months in office, however.
The U.K. still holds the U.N. climate presidency — handing it over to the Egyptians at the beginning of COP27 on November 6 — and Truss’ government will be under immediate pressure from developing countries to offer up finance for clean energy, climate protection and damage recovery.
Then, two days after COP27 begins, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is due to make a highly-symbolic decision on whether to grant permission for Britain’s first new coal mine in a generation.
And a further key milestone looms in March next year, when the U.K. government has been ordered by the High Court to submit an updated version of its strategy for reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Satisfying the court’s order, analysts said, will require the submission of extra data on how the strategy would actually work.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent body that advises the U.K. government on climate policy, has been scathing about the strategy’s multiple shortcomings. In particular, the committee said the window was closing fast for the U.K. to decide how it will renovate millions of buildings to make them more energy efficient, replace gas-fired heating systems in homes and reform the agricultural system to cut methane production.
If she’s serious about net zero, said Buckland, Truss will have little choice at that point but to set out a genuine long-term plan.
“If that document doesn’t include a set of new commitments” or at least more detail how Britain can actually become carbon neutral, he said, it will be a “real credibility test.”
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