UK advocates for renewable energy and climate action are increasingly alarmed that the nation’s green agenda could be derailed after the departure of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, with some candidates to replace him saying they will halt key policies if they are picked.
Two prominent green-minded members of Johnson’s Conservative Party on Monday in a joint article urged the next Prime Minister not to “pull the plug on our climate commitments” and cited strong public support for action on emissions.
The article by international environment minister Zac Goldsmith and MP Chris Skidmore for the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph came as an 11-strong field of candidates lined up to replace Johnson ahead of elections by fellow MPs and party members.
Goldsmith had warned on Twitter last week that the contest to succeed Johnson would likely be dominated “by people who, on the whole, couldn’t give a shit about climate and nature”.
One of the contenders – albeit considered a long-shot – the current UK attorney general Suella Braverman has already said “we need to suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050. If we keep it up, especially before businesses and families can adjust, our economy will end up with net zero growth”.
Other leadership contenders have signalled general opposition to the green agenda as part of a pitch as ‘anti-woke’ candidates, while prominent figures such as Steve Baker – a powerful voice on the right of the party and one of the key supporters of Brexit – has called for renewed focus on domestic fossil supply at the expense of “fundamentally intermittent” wind and solar.
Amid a campaign so far dominated by talk of tax cutting, there is also anxiety at the prospect of a decisive vote for the Conservative Party membership, which could have a less favourable view of climate and environment-related issues than the wider UK population.
Those considered frontrunners in the race, such as former chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss have been almost silent over net zero issues so far in the campaign, which is due to move to a vote among MPs as soon as this week before being settled by the members.
On the flip side, clean energy policy advocates will hope that climate and renewables are sufficiently baked into the UK agenda to survive a change of Conservative leader. Although the party has enjoyed an up-and-down relationship with green-focused policies over more than a decade in power – for example it banned from, then later reinstated onshore wind into the UK auction system – it has presided over the signing into law of a 2050 net zero target and set ambitious targets in sectors such as offshore wind and hydrogen.
For all his numerous faults – many of them starkly exposed in the run up to his ejection at the hands of his colleagues last week – Johnson, whose tenure included COP26, at least closely aligned himself with green policies, including the UK’s world-leading offshore wind build-out and liked to refer to making Britain the “Saudi Arabia of wind power”, a push given extra resonance by the need to increase energy security after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The industrial regeneration credentials of the sector have also been heavily stressed by Conservatives seeking vote in what they see as a key new political heartland, the northeast of England.
The Conservative mayor of Teesside Ben Houchen – who has revelled in his region’s status as an emerging global offshore wind supply chain powerhouse thanks to new investments to serve giant North Sea projects – has said the next party leader and Prime Minister should make sure the so-called ‘levelling up agenda’ remains centre stage.
'Green Conservatives' Goldsmith and Skidmore will hope that is borne in mind by their next leader, as they concluded by warning that turning away from net zero would be tantamount to the party “digging our electoral grave”.