Jhe UK has a new Prime Minister and British environmentalists are breathing a small sigh of relief.
Rishi Sunak, a former finance minister, was confirmed as the new leader of the ruling Conservative Party on Monday, after a weekend of rocky negotiations within the party to replace Liz Truss, who resigned on October 21 after just 44 days in office. , amid fierce backlash to his far-right economic agenda. (Truss had replaced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned in July after a series of scandals.) And while Sunak is by no means an environmental champion, campaigners are cautiously optimistic the possibility that brings the UK’s climate fight back to the brink.
Truss’ short time at the helm of the world’s fifth-largest economy has been a whirlwind for British climate policy. A long-time advocate of smaller government and deregulation that drew inspiration from Margaret Thatcher, Truss had expressed skepticism about the ambitious action needed to achieve the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050 , which Johnson had supported. Once in office, she immediately moved to ban solar power on most farmland, reverse a widely supported ban on fracking, and scrap hundreds of laws and subsidy programs designed to protect nature. Truss also chose Jacob Rees-Mogg as energy secretary, a lawmaker who questioned whether climate change was caused by human activity.
In a country where polls show strong bipartisan support for action to cut emissions, Truss’ environmental agenda was “pretty shocking”, said Ed Matthew, director of campaigns at European climate think tank E3G. “Liz Truss represented the nadir when it came to commitment to climate action.”
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The new British Prime Minister is not exactly the top. As a lawmaker, first elected in 2015, Sunak has generally voted against measures to cut emissions. As finance minister from 2020 to 2022, he cut funding for key energy efficiency measures. And as a Conservative leadership candidate this summer – which he initially lost to Truss – his enthusiasm for clean energy was lukewarm at best.
But, adds Matthew: “The proof is that he is certainly ready to listen to science more than Liz Truss was. Climate change poses an existential threat to Britain’s economy and if he cannot understand this, whatever actions he takes will not be enough to secure this country’s future prosperity.
What is Sunak’s record on climate action?
Pretty poor. In March 2021, Sunak’s cuts as Chancellor of the Exchequer led to the scrapping of a $1.7 billion scheme to insulate UK homes. In October of the same year, on the eve of the United Nations COP26 climate summit hosted by the United Kingdom, Sunak announced a plan to halve taxes on domestic flights, a measure that would encourage international travel. plane and increase its emissions. He also slashed the UK’s foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income, cutting millions of dollars from the country’s funds to help poorer countries adjust to the climate change, at a time when campaigners say rich countries need to dramatically increase climate finance.
Extinction Rebellion protesters holding posters against Prime Minister Liz Truss outside Downing Street on October 14, 2022 in London, United Kingdom.
Mike Kemp—In Pictures/Getty Images
Sunak, however, has always been enthusiastic about the role of business in the energy transition, pledging $17 billion to help London become a “green finance hub”, to bolster the city’s weakened competitive advantage after Brexit. In November 2021, Sunak also announced a first global scheme to require UK-based companies to publish net zero transition plans, saying the UK “has a responsibility to lead the way” on funding of climate action.
Kierra Box, a UK-based campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says Sunak “spoke” about delivering on the government’s net zero pledges. But his economic position – to the right of the Conservative Party – has prevented him from taking the more interventionist measures that many experts believe are necessary to reduce UK emissions in the short term, such as taxing heavily polluting activities or large-scale low-emission financing. carbon infrastructure projects. “His past growth attitude has always prioritized deregulation and finding technological solutions to the climate crisis,” she says, citing Sunak’s support for unproven carbon-capture technologies over untested technologies. measures to reduce the use of fossil fuels. “It allows him to ignore some of the biggest and most immediate challenges.”
What will Sunak do for the climate now?
There are reasons for hope in some key areas of climate policy. During his leadership campaign in July, Sunak told the Time of London that he wanted to spend hundreds of millions of pounds to renovate British houses, which give off more heat than most buildings in Europe. And while Sunak oversaw the cancellation of a previous program to do just that in 2021, proponents say the economic case for insulation is now undeniable: the price of natural gas, which most homes in UK use for heating, surged following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even after a government aid package announced under Truss, Britons’ energy bills will have doubled by the end of 2022.
Read more: How green energy could help solve the UK’s economic mess
“There are strong arguments to demonstrate that it is impossible to have economic growth without focusing on energy efficiency,” says Juliet Philips, heating and buildings expert at E3G. “It’s the best way to reduce the amount people are spending on energy bills that they could instead be spending elsewhere in the economy.”
Environmentalists say the natural gas crisis is also strengthening the case for decarbonising the UK’s energy supply through a massive expansion of wind and solar power, but it is unclear whether the new Prime Minister shares the same opinion. Sunak shared Truss’ support for overturning the UK’s fracking ban over the summer and pledged not to ease restrictions on the construction of onshore wind farms “in recognition of distress and disruption” they may cause to communities living nearby. (Truss actually removed restrictions in September, surprising activists.)
Sunak will face pressure to rethink these Labor Party positions. In recent weeks, the left-wing opposition has extended its lead in the polls over the conservatives to a decades-high 39 percentage points. In early October, the party made decarbonisation the focus of its annual conference and pledged to spend billions to create a national clean energy company and make the UK a clean energy ‘superpower’ of here 2030.
The specter of Truss’ brief premiership could also hang over Sunak, Friends of the Earth’s Box says. Legalizing fracking — along with the rest of Truss’s agenda — has proven deeply unpopular, and Sunak might wish to distance himself from his predecessor’s environmental record. “He’ll have to learn from the failures of Liz Truss and reverse the rest of his program,” Box says, adding, “There’s definitely room for hope because it could hardly be worse than Truss.”
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