UK’s net zero czar warns of ‘vacuum’ in climate leadership – POLITICO

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LONDON — The man who signed the UK’s ambitious climate pledge is quitting — and it’s not clear anyone else wants to step into the breach.

Chris Skidmore was Minister of Energy under Theresa May and helped the then Prime Minister enshrine the goal of net zero carbon emissions in the country by 2050 as one of her last acts in power.

He has been called in for one last job, as the author of a major review of UK net zero policy. It was commissioned under the short and tumultuous tenure of former Prime Minister Liz Truss.

“It’s like a rare piece of Edward VIII,” he told POLITICO. “The report is perhaps one of the only things that exists as a legacy of the Truss administration.”

Skidmore sees the report as his last chance to influence policy before stepping down as an MP in the next election.

His scheduled departure comes as a host of Conservative Party bigwigs on climate change are simultaneously retiring in one form or another.

Boris Johnson, who embraced net zero both as a personal cause and as the winner of the vote, has been forced out of office and can no longer act as the party’s conscience on the subject. He can, of course, irritate penultimate successor Rishi Sunak from the sidelines – as he did by ostensibly showing up at the COP27 climate summit. But Johnson cannot force his more skeptical colleagues to act as he once did.

Under Johnson, maintaining the goal of net zero was one of the six pledges that drove the 2019 Conservative manifesto. Climate action is notably absent from the five pledges that Sunak has identified as his own priorities in government .

Alok Sharma, the UK’s COP26 president, who won plaudits for his determined handling of last year’s COP26 summit, handed over to Egypt and did not get another post on the government thereafter.

There is now a minister explicitly responsible for climate change – Graham Stuart – who does not sit in Cabinet and has kept a low profile since being appointed to the post.

“There’s this void,” observes Skidmore. “We no longer have the cockpit of the COP26 presidency, and people are still looking to the UK for solutions to common problems.”

At the same time, the opposition Labor Party is going on the climate offensive.

There is now a minister explicitly responsible for climate change – Graham Stuart – who does not sit in Cabinet and has kept a low profile since being appointed | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Keir Starmer’s plan for a national energy company was at the heart of the Labor Party’s latest conference speech. A shadow cabinet minister confirmed that this seizure of the agenda was made possible by Johnson’s departure and the apparent reluctance of anyone in the Conservative Party to resume their role.

Sunak has pledged to the net zero agenda, but is less strident in his approach than Johnson and has been accused of mixed messaging on the subject.

Skidmore fears inaction on climate change could create “a perfect storm” that could see the Conservatives lose votes in the north and south of the country in the next election.

The so-called ‘Red Wall’ – parts of England’s deindustrialised North and Midlands which first went Tory in 2019 – could topple if the government doesn’t move with the approval of new green projects that create energy. jobs. And, in the wealthier seats in the south, Labor is now less vulnerable to the Green Party than it was in the last election.

The jitters of green investments

As well as the potential electoral cost of inaction, the overarching message of Skidmore’s 340-page review is that the UK is losing green investment due to inconsistent decision-making at the top of government and delays in crucial planning decisions at the local level.

“People tell us they want to invest money in the UK, but they’re not ready to commit just yet because they don’t feel the environment is there,” says Skidmore . It’s a business concern that he says has been “accelerated” by the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States, which provides grants and tax breaks to spur growth. new climate-friendly investments.

The UK government is reportedly wary of EU moves to replicate the IRA, and there are fears it could be caught in the middle of a transatlantic green subsidy war.

Skidmore meanwhile warns of a “total disjunction between our climate commitments and the reality of meeting them”, with some already approved projects discovering that connection to the country’s electricity grid will only be possible in 2032.

Its review calls for an infrastructure strategy to support new clean energy initiatives and proposes a ban on gas boilers in new homes from 2025.

Skidmore also wants Sunak’s government to set up an office for net zero delivery, a sign that he is unimpressed with the failure of successive Conservative governments to pursue a cohesive line on the environment.

UK's net zero czar warns of 'vacuum' in climate leadership - POLITICO
Skidmore also wants Sunak’s government to set up an office for net zero delivery | Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

“There are mistakes that have been made, and the cost has been borne by the British people,” the former minister said.

He cites the abandonment of home insulation initiatives under David Cameron, the dithering over nuclear power, Truss’ love affair with fracking for shale gas and Sunak’s recent government decision to approve a new coal mine in Cumbria.

Skidmore was caught up in the chaotic vote ahead of Truss’ departure as Prime Minister, where Tory MPs were threatened with losing the party whip if they did not vote against a Labor motion to ban fracking hydraulic.

“I almost became an independent as a result of that vote,” he says, “because I couldn’t trust a government that was going to break the manifesto commitments we originally made on fracking.”

He is equally scathing about Sunak’s decision to go ahead with building the UK’s first new deep coal mine in three decades.

“We wanted to be a key leader in green steel and the UK steel industry wants to be able to create low carbon steel that they can export overseas…It’s a classic decision where the left hand not sure what the right hand is doing.

At the time of the announcement, the UK’s leveling department issued a reasoning document seeking to explain the decision, which claimed that the proposed mine was “likely to be much better placed to mitigate” greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse effect when compared to “comparative mining operations”. around the world.”

The government has yet to give its official response to Skidmore’s net zero review.

The former minister estimates that the Sunak administration has just over a year to make its impact on the climate felt and says that the creation of an office for net zero delivery “would provide a single and coherent voice of the government on what needs to happen”.

When asked who might pursue this, he apparently did not name anyone in the current cabinet.

And, as he heads for the exit door, all Skidmore can offer is that he places his hope in a “new generation that will handle it.”

This article has been updated to clarify one of the quotes.


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