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22 August 2022updated 23 Aug 2022 1:43am

Nour Ghantous

Opinion: Truss and Sunak promise climate regression

Between them, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak promise to revive fracking, ban solar and onshore wind, and remove green levies. Under either Tory leadership candidate, the UK's climate targets would be in peril.

Following Boris Johnson’s protracted departure from No. 10 Downing Street, members of the Conservative Party have shortlisted Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and MP Rishi Sunak as potential successors. The two candidates are now campaigning for the position, and Conservative Party members have until 2 September 2022 to cast their votes, with the winner announced three days later.

According to polling, Conservative members of Parliament have favoured Sunak, while Truss is most popular with the party membership as a whole. Truss is also anticipated to be the next leader by bookmakers and betting exchanges.

A fossil future

The cut-throat campaigns for leadership have pulled an array of arbitrary policy ideas from the shadows such as Truss’s passion for bolstering pork markets and Sunak’s disdain towards over-funding deprived areas. But both candidates remain reticent on one of today’s most pressing issues: climate change.

“It’s very disappointing that climate hasn't been higher on the agenda, [particularly] because what we're seeing now is unprecedented heatwaves and the impacts of climate change becoming much more front and centre in terms of people's living experience,” says Antony Froggatt, deputy director of Chatham House’s Environment and Society Programme.

With the cap on UK household energy bills set to rise to £4,266 ($5,037) a year from January, both candidates have been vocal about how they would solve the ongoing energy crisis, neither citing renewables or energy efficiency in their vision for energy security.

Truss promises to end the moratorium on fracking. At a Conservative hustings on 11 August, the foreign secretary said: “We need to make sure we’re fracking in parts of the country where there is local support for it […] I will also make sure we exploit all of the gas in the North Sea and make sure we use that to bolster our domestic energy supply.”

Sunak followed a similar line of thought, backing fracking so long as “local people support it”.

Following the International Energy Agency’s caution that there can be no new oil and gas projects if the world is to mitigate climate change, the candidates’ disregard for climate policy has outraged the Green Party, which said: “[The candidates] seem to be competing on who can propose the stupidest and most dangerous climate policies”.

“Most surprising and disappointing is the extent to which the [most convenient solutions] to the energy security questions, [like energy efficiency, solar or wind] are either not discussed in sufficient detail or being rejected,” says Froggatt.

He points out that policies put forward by the candidates reflect the opinions of “a very narrow electorate of 160,000 Conservative members”.

Some observers seem satisfied with the candidates’ renewed focus on oil and gas. “Everything we drill onshore [in the North Sea] is something that we are not importing and that's the choice [we have to make],” says Andy Mayer, energy analyst at the UK-based free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. “The candidates’ support for fracking is great but it's not going far enough. They need to take this more seriously and get on with drilling.”

Climate Action Tracker says that current UK climate policies are “almost consistent” with Paris Agreement climate goals and that “approval of continued oil and gas exploration in the North Sea” is counter-productive to those goals.

“Many of the major emitters are not going to achieve net zero globally by 2050, so the idea that the UK hitting that target is going to make a difference in tackling climate change is for the birds,” says Mayer, whose think tank receives funding from fossil fuel companies.

Aside from their enduring anti-climate campaigns, the candidates have shabby track records when it comes to climate finance. As finance minister, Sunak opposed climate spending, while during her time as environment minister, Truss cut renewable subsidies and funded climate-sceptic think tanks.

More recently, Truss declared she would “put climate change on the back-burner” if she won the election.

Climate Action Tracker already labels UK climate finance as “highly insufficient”.

Energy inefficiency

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, energy efficiency has been a vital part of energy security conversations and particularly for the EU, which increased its energy efficiency targets as part of its REPowerEU plan to end Russian fossil fuel imports whilst carrying citizens through winter.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, a select committee of the House of Commons, has reported a significant drop in home insulation installations. The committee's chair, Darren Jones, recently admonished the government for a lack of action. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government's climate change advisory body, estimates that 27,000 lofts were insulated in 2020 compared to 1.6 million in 2012.

As chancellor, Sunak launched a “green homes” grant scheme, which offered £10,000 to homes to support insulation installations. Less than a year later and with less than 10% of the target met, the scheme was scrapped.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng proposed an energy efficiency scheme to help low-income households but was blocked by Sunak’s Treasury.

“Had we been working on energy efficiency and retrofitted buildings over the last decade or two, since the last energy shocks in 2008, [current] increases in gas prices would not have impacted businesses or households this much. [Minimising demand through energy efficiency] addresses climate change, energy security and energy policy all at the same time – it's a triple win,” says Froggatt. “If the government doesn't seek to do that, that is highly problematic.”

Anti-renewables

Both candidates have chosen a least favourable form of renewable technology to berate. While Sunak has pledged to halt any new onshore wind projects, Truss has expressed disdain for solar panels.

Speaking at a husting event, Truss promised to stop farmers from "filling fields with paraphernalia like solar farms". The comment was met with criticism from the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), a British trade association for renewable energy producers.

“Pledging to change planning laws to restrict further solar development would pose a serious threat to the jobs and investment created by the solar industry. It would undermine the UK’s ability to reach net zero and keep us locked in to expensive fossil fuels at a huge cost to households and businesses. Delivering more solar projects is not only an environmental imperative, but an economic one too,” Mark Sommerfeld, REA's head of power and flexibility, said in a statement.

“The Conservatives have not made planning easy for onshore wind for a long period of time, unlike the EU which is doubling the contribution of renewables within the EU in the next eight years. [While] that will be a stretch target, it’s the direction that they want to go. We haven't seen a similar definition from the UK, even before the election campaigns,” says Froggatt.

For both Truss and Sunak, Froggatt adds that the contempt for onshore renewable installations is an appeal to landowners and farmers who disagree with the space that they take up: “They're appealing to a very narrow electorate, who are more concerned about the localities of renewables, [unlike] the population as a whole, which in fact is very supportive [of renewable technologies].”

The candidates would do well to remember that the winner will not only represent their electorate but the nation as a whole – a nation whose trust in government to disseminate accurate climate change information is at its highest, according to BEIS.

Leveraging levies

When it comes to taxation, the candidates’ policies differ in approach but align in intention – that being furthering fossil fuel profits. Truss publicly decries windfall taxes, which are levies on companies deemed to have made unreasonably high profits. At a hustings in Cheltenham, England, she notably said: “profit is not a dirty word”, when referring to the disproportionate profits being awarded to fossil fuel companies as a result of skyrocketing fuel costs.

Sunak supports windfall taxes, having imposed an “energy profits levy” himself. But while the so-called windfall tax obliges oil and gas companies to pay a temporary 25% charge on profits, it equally grants those same companies a 90% tax break for reinvesting profits into oil and gas extraction, raising concerns that what should have been a tax on the fossil fuel industry’s immense profits is in fact a thinly veiled oil and gas subsidy.

To lessen the financial burden of the energy crisis on low and middle-income households, Truss says she will abolish the UK’s green levy, several taxes added to energy bills that are used to support climate-friendly electricity and programmes.

Yet UK government and climate researchers argue the levy pays for itself by driving investment into clean energy and shielding consumers from fossil fuel volatility. Instead of entirely abolishing the green levy, an equity case has been made for moving it from energy bills to general taxation to account for households’ differing incomes. Liz Truss has not said this is an option she would consider.

“Liz Truss wants to remove green levies and Rishi Sunak hasn’t said that. So, I guess that’s a positive [in favour of Sunak]. But I don’t think there’s a substantial difference between the [two candidates]. They are both very far from what is actually needed when it comes to climate policy,” says Froggatt.

The end of the line for Tories?

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak’s campaigns for Tory leadership are not conducive to the UK’s duty to set an example as last year’s COP26 hosts. With both candidates’ campaigns reflective of the Conservative ideology, the UK’s climate targets are indeed in peril. Should the winning candidate follow through on their promises to impose climate regressive policy, the nation’s only remaining hope for climate action may be a rejig of government at the next general election.

“Labour sees the climate as the one thing that matters, which it clearly doesn't,” says IEA's Mayer. “Climate change matters as a long-term goal, [but the] current system relies on fossil fuels.”

With the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urging that climate action must happen immediately, it seems as though Labour’s ideologies may in fact better align with and support the solutions required to carry the nation through its current crises.

Editor's note: This column was edited after publication to make clear that while IEA's Andy Mayer supports some of the fossil fuel policies endorsed by the Tory leadership candidates, he is not a member of the Conservative Party.

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