UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — whose Conservative government is trailing badly in opinion polls — has suddenly woken up to the vote-winning potential of “standing up” to climate activists but, in doing so, he risks throwing a carefully-constructed consensus over net-zero objectives to the political dogs.

The obstructive antics of Just Stop Oil campaigners tend to irritate ordinary folk trying to go about their business.

To their critics these are people who seem to understand little about the difficulty that many families face putting food on the table or fuel in the tank and who contribute little to the debate about the energy transition.

Backlash politics

Whether or not the intentions or methods of the campaigners are laudable, Sunak’s apparent awakening to the political potential of a green backlash came when the Conservative Party won a surprise by-election win in the outer London seat of Uxbridge and West Ruislip last month.

Campaigners in the constituency were in no doubt that what allowed their candidate to hang on – albeit by the slimmest of margins – was anger and mistrust about expansion of a ‘ultra-low emission zone’ that makes users of high-polluting vehicles pay a special daily charge.

It was ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who originally introduced central London's first ULEZ charge but Sunak seized the opportunity to distance himself from his former mentor by pledging to review low traffic neighbourhoods in England, while instructing his ministers to accuse Labour Party opponents of pandering to Just Stop Oil at every opportunity.

Sunak also moved to create political daylight between government and opposition by allowing the licensing of at least 100 North Sea oil and gas concessions before the next election, which is likely to take place in early 2025 at the latest.

Energy security and net zero secretary Grant Shapps said the government will seek the “maxxing out” of known but fast-declining North Sea reserves, and promised a fast-moving licensing process for areas adjacent to known fields.

The arguments are rational enough, but Sunak’s willingness to turn energy transition strategy into one of the central issues in the coming campaign could have far-reaching consequences.

On the oil and gas front, the two main parties still seem to agree on overall net zero emissions targets.

But one side, and not the other, will support new oil and gas licencing and, it seems, be more inclined to back a continued role for decarbonised oil and gas production and not just for "hard to abate" industries.

Sunak’s shift in position fed swiftly into other areas of debate, including pressures for the UK to push back the banning of the sale of domestic gas boilers beyond 2025 and of fossil fuel powered combustion engines by 2030.

Sunak’s new thinking soon spread to the broader political arena, with questions suddenly being asked about why the UK, a medium-sized economy and a less significant emitter, should seek to take a lead in phasing out fossil fuels.

The UK can take pride in taking a global lead on offshore wind, even if that lead has slipped, and can still build on that advantage as new green hydrogen and industrial carbon capture and storage projects take shape.

Fortunately, there is still plenty of consensus about climate action in the UK and some allies were among those willing to describe Sunak’s apparent strategy shift as "being on the wrong side of history".

In the corporate world, there was also some consternation about a growing propensity to back-track on pledges in a country that used to tick the boxes for regulatory certainty and political consistency when it came to energy.

Andrew Forrest — an Australian mining tycoon whose companies such as Fortescue Future Industries are big investors in renewables, energy storage and green hydrogen projects — said countries that backtrack on net zero will see a drain of investment to those with robust green policies. He railed against leadership on what he called a "clickbait cycle".

Among the oil companies, BP boss Bernard Looney, in another interview, said investors needed more “stability and predictability” and called for more clarity from the Labour Party on oil and gas drilling rights.

TotalEnergies’ CEO Patrick Pouyanne put the message bluntly last week when he told analysts that said the energy transition will inevitably bring higher prices, presenting opportunities for companies with the capacity and expertise to invest, while also carrying political risks.

Consensus building

There is still near consensual political support for the transition to clean energy in Europe and elsewhere, even after the spike in energy prices caused by Russia's war on Ukraine.

The duty of leaders, in this tricky time, is to make investment conditions as attractive as possible for this transition to help earn the trust that will allow them to carry forward difficult and sometimes unpopular policies.

Providing enough certainty to invest billions in new renewables capacity, grid infrastracture and charging stations forms part of this task

It is no good pretending that moving to clean energy is a matter of setting a target or imposing a ban.

As we are learning, renewables and the necessary infrastructure come with their own social and environmental costs. They are not always without emissions and they are certainly not cheap to build.

It is a lot to ask politicians to sheath their swords, even over this potentially species-saving issue.

It is better to face up to the reality now that energy transition will be a political battleground in which obtaining consent and building consensus is a battle worth fighting, and it should be made clear that this terrain should ultimately be profitable for investors.

Considering the scale of the crisis facing humanity, we need courageous and enlightened political leaders, like never before. In this sense, too, we are on a roller coaster.

Gareth Chetwynd is senior correspondent for Recharge