Simon Clarke is MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and a former Levelling-Up Secretary.
When the history of this period of Conservative government is written, our leadership on climate issues will rightly be seen as one of our main achievements. Having raised serious concerns about the speech earlier in the week, I was heartened by the Prime Minister’s re-commitment yesterday to Net Zero and our climate goals. But the framing for voters and the inconsistency of our signals to industry remain of concern.
Despite the tone of the unhelpful leak earlier in the week, there were positive measures to celebrate in the speech. Offering more generous grants to help more households switch to heat pumps will boost the market and enable businesses to invest in bringing down costs.
The Prime Minister deserves particular praise for committing to speed up the planning process for new electricity grid infrastructure. Some renewable projects have been given waiting times of up to 13 years to connect to the grid, with several not even expected to connect until 2038. The 600-odd projects currently in the queue already have the capacity to generate enough low-carbon energy for us to reach Net Zero.
I have long argued for planning reform to get more homes built. It is one of the most important levers to pull in decarbonisation too. To unlock more grid capacity without triggering a backlash, the Government should consider proposals for community benefit packages for local residents who host new pylons.
Rishi Sunak was also right that we should prioritise ‘carrots’ rather than ‘sticks’ in our route to Net Zero. I am very clear: the delivery of Net Zero should not be a hair-shirt exercise. Some of the policies that were scrapped were very unlikely to go ahead anyway, such as the ban on new fossil fuel boilers in off-gas grid homes, meat taxes, carpooling requirements, or tougher energy efficiency standards for landlords. But it is reassuring to hear them ruled out nonetheless.
Arguably the main policy change however – the delay to the phaseout of new petrol and diesel cars – was more troubling. The business has been investing billions in upgrading car production lines for electric vehicles, building battery factories, and installing charge points.
Those investments are predicated on clear and consistent policy signals from the Government about the pace of the transition. Yesterday’s change risks undermining that, despite the fact electric cars are forecast to be significantly cheaper to own than petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
I believe firmly that it is in our environmental, economic, moral, and – yes – political interests as Conservatives to make sure we lead on this issue rather than talk it down. We shouldn’t be coy about putting forward this positive vision. I worry that we are now giving the impression that we are backtracking. Yet, since I led the Parliamentary campaign to enshrine Net Zero in legislation in the last parliament, the case for decarbonisation has become even stronger.
The evidence of climate change impacts has become more visible to us all, with this summer seeing record temperatures across Europe and wildfires in Libya. Scientists have warned that winter sea ice cover in Antarctica has never been lower.
Climate change continues to feature prominently among voters’ top five concerns, despite the myriad pressures they face. New More in Common polling finds that 49 per cent of voters think the Government needs to do more on climate change compared to 18 per cent who think we should do less. Indeed, just yesterday, Onward and Public First issued a new survey, showing the Net Zero target is overwhelmingly popular with voters, including Conservative ones, 49 per cent of whom say they support it while only 20 per cent oppose it.
Of course, the public does not want excessive costs imposed on them to meet environmental goals, as was shown emphatically with the rejection of the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone by the voters of Uxbridge. But I worry our party may have overinterpreted that one by-election result into a wider repudiation of environmental action.
Economically, green industries make a significant contribution to our national prosperity – recently estimated to be £70 billion a year. Net Zero already supports nearly one million jobs, which pay salaries around 30 per cent higher than the national average. The economic opportunities from Net Zero will be felt most in our industrial heartlands. Places like Teesside are the beneficiaries of billions in green investment and are being revitalised by these new industries.
With over 90 per cent of the world economy’s covered by Net Zero targets, British firms that develop and commercialise clean technologies have a huge export opportunity. Yet despite our head-start in sectors like offshore wind, we face strong competition from the USA’s Inflation Reduction Act subsidies, the EU’s response, and China’s long-standing industrial subsidy programme.
The planning reform pledges will make the UK a more attractive place for green investment, but we should go further on green supply-side reforms, for instance by making the Government’s full capital expensing policy permanent and expanding our free ports programme.
We must also redouble our commitment to the broad, non-partisan consensus in the UK around the need to reduce emissions. This gives businesses certainty to invest in solutions and lowers their cost of capital. Yes, we must debate and pursue different approaches to reaching Net Zero. We Conservatives will always favour a greater role for markets and private enterprise. But we should be careful not to undermine investor confidence through over politicisation of this issue.
Thirty-four years ago, Margaret Thatcher, stood before the UN General Assembly and warned of the dangers of climate change. In doing so, she became the first major world leader to call for concerted international action to reduce emissions. Her speech galvanised a global response, leading ultimately to the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. But perhaps more importantly for this moment, it marked the start of the Conservative Party’s leadership role on this gravest of challenges.
Successive Conservative leaders have picked up the baton and given our party a record to be proud of. Since 1990, the UK has cut emissions faster than any other G7 nation, largely under Conservative Prime Ministers. Next year, our last coal-fired power station will close. Renewables’ share of electricity generation has risen from 7 per cent in 2010 to more than 40 per cent last year. In my constituency in Teesside, we are seeking companies investing billions of pounds into new industries like carbon capture and storage and low-carbon.
Conservatives will always tackle the threat of climate change with more affordable policies than the left. We will always reject draconian measures. And I believe we will always honour our moral responsibility to future generations. I hope I am wrong, but I fear yesterday’s speech may have given voters the impression we are backing away.