The UK government led by Rishi Sunak has gone from indifference to hostile to climate measures in recent weeks, re-iterating its backing for oil production and polluting vehicles after previously cutting climate finance.
With a general election next year, the ruling Conservatives are consistently trailling the Labour Party in opinion polls and have ramped up their opposition to emissions-cutting measures in the hope of winning over climate-sceptic voters.
Politics professor Michael Jacobs, a former adviser to Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, told Climate Home that the UK’s long-standing relative cross-party consensus on climate change was starting to break down.
After a surprise election victory for the Conservatives in suburban London last month was blamed on the Labour mayor’s anti air-pollution policies, Jacobs said the Conservative party and right-wing media has wrongly concluded that green measures are unpopular.
“Conservatives no longer perceive their own advantage as in being strong proponents of climate policy”, he said.
In February 2020, then UK prime minister Boris Johnson made little-known Rishi Sunak his finance minister after falling out with the previous minister.
After spending vast sums to deal with the pandemic, Sunak set out to cut spending including on climate programmes.
In November 2021, he reduced the UK’s aid budget from 0.7% of national income to 0.5%, hitting UK-funded climate projects around the world.
In July 2022, Sunak led a rebellion against Johnson and forced him to resign over breaching Covid restrictions in an episode known as “partygate”.
Sunak came second in the subsequent leadership election but after the winner Liz Truss crashed the economy in less than two months, he came to power.
While accepting the UK’s legally-binding net zero by 2050 target, Sunak never showed enthusiasm for tackling climate change.
He joked that his young daughters were the experts on climate change in his household and he only reluctantly attended Cop27, after banning King Charles from going.
In June 2023, he didn’t attend a major climate and finance summit in Paris, choosing instead to attend a garden party for Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch.
When Sunak’s environment minister Zac Goldsmith resigned from government a week later, he said that choice was one factor in his decision to leave government.
It has been a privilege to have been able to make a difference to a cause I have been committed to for as long as I remember. But this govt’s apathy in the face of the greatest challenge we face makes continuing in my role untenable. Reluctantly I am therefore stepping down pic.twitter.com/KDJKN3i6ER
— Zac Goldsmith (@ZacGoldsmith) June 30, 2023
Goldsmith said he was “horrifed” at the UK abandoning its climate commitments and accused Sunak of being “simply uninterested” in the environment.
Goldsmith also slammed Sunak’s decision to “effectively abandon” its climate finance pledges and failing to “come clean on the broken promise”.
Since his resignation, the UK’s development ministry has cut in half its spending on several major climate programmes, which help developing countries to adapt to climate change, protect forests and cut emissions.
On July 20, the Conservative Party won a by-election in a suburban part of London called Uxbridge despite losing elections on the same day elsewhere.
Many commentators interpreted this surprise victory as a local rebellion against the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), an anti air-pollution measure installed by London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan.
The Ulez charges the most polluting 10% of vehicles £12.50 ($16) every day they drive within inner London. On 29 August, this is being expanded to outer London including Uxbridge.
Jacobs said that Sunak’s advisers had concluded from this result that not just the Ulez but all climate measures are unpopular. “That’s a very contentious reading”, he said, as “the polling suggests Conservative voters are almost as pro-green as Labour ones”.
While the opposition Labour Party has pledged to stop issuing new oil and gas licenses if it wins next year’s election, Sunak took a private jet to Scotland’s oil capital Aberdeen to re-iterate his commitment to oil and gas production.
His energy minister Grant Shapps told energy companies that “not extracting oil and gas would be mad”. This is despite the head of the United Nations calling governments that increase production of fossil fuels “truly dangerous radicals” and the International Energy Agency concluding that new fossil fuel projects are incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5C.
Energy security. That’s our focus.
Together, we will:
⬆️ Boost renewables
⬆️ Revive nuclear power
⬆️ Back North Sea oil & gas
And by taking this approach, we’ll also boost British jobs and grow the economy 🇬🇧 https://t.co/HprEqaMuCx
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) August 2, 2023
Jacobs said there was now a risk that Labour would backtrack on its promise not to issue new oil and gas licenses, as they “have been very keen not to allow the [Conservatives] to open up gaps on issues where voters might like the [Conservatives]”.
Will Sunak’s gamble pay off?
Leo Barasi, author of the book Climate Majority, said the Conservatives were not going for US or Australian style climate denial but instead were tying to paint the Labour Party as irresonsible with money.
Steve Akehurst, a British polling analyst specialising in attitudes to the environment and climate change, said the Conservatives could be making a “a significant electoral misstep” with its anti-climate rhetoric as “British voters remain one of the most pro-climate in the Western world”.
Barasi said their anti-climate policies by themselves wouldn’t swing many votes, as most people who wil vote on climate grounds are already against the Conservative Party. But, he said, it could add to the Conservatives damaging, long-standing reputation as “the nasty party”.
Both accepted that Ulez divides public opinion, with more British people opposed to it than supportive, but said that doesn’t translate to climate policies more generally.
But Barasi warned that climate policies should not have a direct cost to ordinary people if they are to remain popular. The Ulez and Germany’s recent “really badly designed” roll-out of heat pumps are examples of that, he said.