Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.
A striking poll was published last month, showing the Conservatives are ahead of Labour on climate change.
According to Ipsos Mori, 35 per cent of the public believe the Conservatives have good policies on climate and the environment, compared to 32 per cent for Labour. While only a small lead, this reflects positively on the Conservatives’ relative performance on climate change in recent weeks.
There are also signs that the Government’s climate change efforts are viewed increasingly positively by Conservative Party members. Notably, Alok Sharma rose up this site’s cabinet minister approval rating rankings this month, from bottom of the table on +6 to twelfth from bottom on +30, perhaps reflecting members’ approval for his determination and success in securing a good deal at COP26.
It certainly seems possible – perhaps likely – that the significant climate policy announcements in the run-up to COP26 has bolstered the government’s standing in this area. Policies such as the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, an end to the financing of overseas fossil fuel projects, and generous grants for heat pumps were all warmly welcomed by environmental groups, many Conservative MPs, and by much of the media. Similarly it was hard to miss Boris Johnson and Sharma’s international leadership on climate change at COP26.
Why does this matter?
There’s been a long standing view among some political strategists on the right that the Conservatives can never win on climate, because it is inherently a left-wing issue which only energises left-wing activists.
Others argue there’s no point making it a core part of the party’s platform: since the Conservatives are ahead on the economy, immigration, and law and order, people argue that it’s better to focus on those issues.
But Conservatives cannot ignore climate change given how salient the issue has become among the general public. Ipsos Mori found last month that four in 10 voters cite climate change as a concern – a record high – while one in five say it’s the biggest issue facing the country, ahead of Covid, the economy, and immigration.
Some of this is undoubtedly related to all the media coverage on climate around COP26. But, with climate change and the environment steadily moving up the public’s priorities for years now, it is increasingly hard to deny that the Conservative Party needs to win on climate change at the next election and beyond if it is to remain competitive. This latest polling demonstrates this is within reach.
How can the party consolidate its lead?
A key challenge for the public’s perception of the Government’s climate record is domestic fossil fuel production. The proposal for a new coal mine in Cumbria is one ‘barnacle’, even though the Government has now called in the decision for a review.
Similarly the Government’s position on UK oil and gas – that it wants to assess new licences against climate targets on a case-by-case basis – leaves them open to attacks from NGOs and activists in the media.
The Government should be clearer that it is working with the industry to transition away from fossil fuel production in line with projected falls in UK demand for oil and gas, due to the uptake of electric vehicles and the decline in gas demand for heating and electricity generation. One potential solution is for the Business Secretary to seek the advice of the respected and independent Climate Change Committee before awarding new oil and gas licences.
Across the country in the 2022 elections, particularly in the ‘Blue Wall’ in the South of England, Conservatives face strong challenges from Lib Dems and Greens on environmental issues. In fact, as I wrote in May on this site, the Conservatives are already losing council seats to the Greens. In response, the Government must address some of these critiques of its climate record.
There’s also a need to demonstrate the employment uplift from net zero in the ‘Red Wall’. Public First research showed that the phrase ‘green jobs’ does not resonate with the public, who might not see those jobs as durable or good quality. To tackle this misconception, there must be a greater emphasis on near-term delivery ahead of the next election, for instance through a new energy efficiency grant scheme for homeowners, which could be rolled out quickly and create jobs.
Finally, there is undoubtedly still a challenge with winning over people who are more sceptical of decarbonisation and worry about the costs. That’s why the Government must continue to emphasise the importance of technology cost reduction and private sector investment in delivering net zero.
And in the immediate term, the Government must help consumers with the rising costs of electricity when the energy price cap is revised in the new year. Despite being driven by high international gas prices, electricity bills could be cut immediately through policies such as eliminating VAT (currently five per cent), or by funding some of the social and environmental levies out of general taxation.
The Ipsos Mori polling proves the Government is making progress in convincing people about its climate credentials. It must maintain the momentum if it wants to capitalise at the ballot box in May and at the next general election.