There is no climate emergency – in the sense that most of us won’t die tomorrow, the day afterwards, or even, in most cases, soon. But there’s undoubtedly a climate challenge: global warming brings more harm than good: drought, flooding, landslides and fires provoke hunger, destitution, wars for resources and mass migration movements, as populations seek to move from warmer places to cooler ones.
One can quibble about the degree to which human activity is the driver, rather than a driver, of climate change. Nonetheless, the need for mitigation as well as adaptation is urgent. But before asking what we should do about it, it’s important to ask how much we can actually do. Tony Blair put the answer very well recently (and whatever you think of him, he’s always excelled at putting things well.)
“Well, it’s the single biggest global challenge, right, and Britain should play its part in that,” he told the New Statesman. “But its part frankly is going to be less to do with Britain’s emissions. I mean, one year’s rise in China’s emissions would outscore the whole of Britain’s emissions for a year…AI and technology’s going to be key. Because basically the developed world’s emissions are going down, but the developing world’s are going up, but these countries have got to grow, so how do you finance the transition; and secondly, how do you accelerate the technology?”
Such an approach is consistent with targets – if they are practicable – but the more important policy aim, as Blair argues, is to improve the supply of cleaner energy. “The Government is investing more than £700 million to help make the UK a global hub for fusion — electricity produced from the heat of nuclear reactions,” Claire Coutinho wrote earlier this week, imagining “a world with an unlimited supply of clean energy, creating no pollution.”
The tyro Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary – note the order of her newish title – was fleshing out a sensible centre-right approach to climate change policy. It wasn’t her fault that she is doing so at least 20 years too late, and that the failure of the Conservatives to make such a case, as four Tory Prime Ministers have come and gone, has damaged party, policy and the public alike.
The second of those requires balancing reducing emissions, energy security and consumer prices. Proclaiming targets that won’t be hit – and leaving it to the next generation of politicians to carry the can – is, as this site has long argued, cynical and counter-productive. It lands households with higher bills, can make us less secure (do we really want to depend on China for electric batteries?) and, if emissions are offshored instead, do nothing much for reduction either.
So there is sense in Rishi Sunak announcing, as he is set to do, an easing of some of the nearer targets – principally, the planned ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, itself a tougher target to meet than that Boris Johnson originally faced. The latter came to office with a commitment to an end date of 2040. He rushed it forward to 2030 only three years ago.
Here is the nub of the problem that the Prime Minister faces. David Cameron proclaimed “Vote Blue, Go Green” – though he placed less stress on the environment once in office, where he once joshed about ditching “green crap”. Theresa May committed to Net Zero by 2050 as a legacy pledge. Johnson, once a climate change sceptic, turned turtle, influenced by his greenish circle of family and friends.
Liz Truss, darling of the right-wing entertainment industry, appointed Chris Skidmore, who is fully committed to the 2050 target, to lead a Net Zero review. In one sense, the timing of Sunak’s change of gear is good, in the sense that it’s never wrong to make the right argument. In another, it’s terrible, because the best time to do so is at the start of opposition, with four years to develop your case, rather than three years in to a fourth term of government.
The Prime Minister faces four audiences with whom he could fail, as he rolls the electoral pitch late in the day. The first is Conservatives who are committed to the Net Zero project on its present terms. Some are true believers, including many of the 133 Tory backbenchers who make up the Conservative Environment Group. Others are subsidy chasers, seeking the benefit of green projects for their constituents. Who can blame them?
Their coalition stretches from Zac Goldsmith through Alok Sharma and Skidmore to Simon Clarke and Ben Houchen in hydrogen-friendly Teesside. It bleeds into a second group, which is even more influential. Namely, business, or at least significant sections of it. Bigger business – including fossil fuel suppliers, if you hadn’t noticed (see here and here) – is lined up behind the Net Zero timetable. As are opinion-shaping elites in universities, the arts, the lobbyocracy and civil society.
Where bigger business goes, supply chains follow. Capitalism is going green (hence America and Euope’s drop in emissions during recent years) and firms like certainty, at least in terms of government policy. So expect protests from car manufacturers, some of whom are complaining, not without reason, of governnment confusion, drift and irrresolution. Where they lead, others will follow.
Some on the right will dismiss these firms as part of a blob, “Treasury orthodoxy” and globalism, in the same way that they are now turning on the Office for Budget Responsibility and the International Monetary Fund. You might expect them to give this policy shift and Sunak himself an ovation. Not so: he isn’t their man and they want him out, even if that means Sir Keir Starmer coming in.
So they will swallow the red meat flung to them – as the Prime Minister’s critics will try to frame his move – and clamour for more, claiming that man-made climate change doesn’t happen, and that the illusion of it is variously conjured up by Bill Gates, George Soros, the Rothschilds, the Da Vinci Code and shape-shifting lizards. But Sunak can afford to fail with all three of these constituencies – especially the last – if he can square the fourth: voters.
As James Frayne has written on this site, they support Net Zero – yes, working class ones in the Red Wall too. Not to mention younger people, especially. But to what degree is unknown. My rule is: the nearer the target (or measure), the bigger the opposition, as the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election proved. The struggle between the Dutch farmers and their government may be the wave of Europe’s future.
My sense is that if the Prime Minister’s change of tack is seen as playing politics to wrongfoot Sir Keir – that moving the targets back is no less cynical than announcing them in the first place – it will fail. The consequences of that would be bad for him. The changes he plans to unveil are clearly the first wave of a series of announcements planned during the run-up to the Conservative Party Conference. The man who has prized party unity above all else, with the exception of his Windsor Framework gambit, has decided to roll the dice.
So I end with a question. Why the change? Anyone who knows Sunak also knows that, as Chancellor, he was distinctly cool about Net Zero. I have little doubt that he understands that the centre-right, and politics itself, has been weakened by the Greta Thunberg-isation of environmental discourse. But the Prime Minister won’t reverse the Tories’ dismal ratings just by announcing what he plans to do. Like Blair, like Margaret Thatcher – like all great election winners – he must explain why.