Chris Skidmore: UK ‘risks damaging national and economic reputation’ with weak net-zero policies

Image: Green Alliance

Skidmore appeared at an event hosted by Green Alliance on Monday evening (20 March), alongside London Mayor Sadiq Khan and BBC Political Correspondent Ione Wells.

The timing of the event was significant; the UK Government has until the end of the month to provide a court-mandated update to its Net-Zero Strategy, which was ruled to be ‘unlawful’ last summer. edie has heard from multiple political and green economy sources that the update will be published on the same day as the full response to Skidmore’s Net-Zero Review, with the Government seeking to create a ‘Green Day’ before the end of the month in which it increases its environmental ambitions and sets out more detailed delivery plans.

Skidmore’s review was commissioned by Liz Truss, who ordered recommendations to ensure that, in meeting its legally binding climate targets, the UK was also maximising opportunities for economic growth.

The conclusion, published in January, was that the current approach is not only unlikely to deliver the levels of emissions cuts needed, but unlikely to contribute to the levelling up agenda or to keep the UK competitive on a global stage as green industries grow rapidly in other high-income markets. Skidmore set out 129 recommendations to change course.

At the event, Skidmore admitted that he is “really nervous” about what Rishi Sunak’s Government’s “appetite” to deliver the Review’s recommendations in full will be. He also urged Ministers to consider the economic implications of weak appetite.

He said: “When it comes to the Net-Zero Review and Mission Zero, we are clear that the UK still has an opportunity to lead on tackling climate change. But as [this week’s] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report demonstrates, that window for leadership is closing.

“The UK risks becoming a follower rather than a leader. We risk damaging our national and economic reputation.

“Joe Biden has demonstrated clear leadership by showing that every second job is a green job – we shouldn’t shy away from that. We’ve also got to recognise the stability that a framework like Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides. Providing that stable pathway is exactly what business is crying out for.”

At the Budget last week, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was under much pressure to serve up a package to rival the US IRA, which set aside more than $360bn for climate action, including long-term subsidy packages for a range of clean technologies. The pressure has only been mounting as the EU has shaped its IRA response in the form of the Net-Zero Industry Act, backed with an initial €250bn.

While Hunt did present an unprecedented package for carbon capture of £20bn over 20 years, plus new funding support for nuclear, the general consensus is that the UK’s approach is not as broad, clear or long-term as the US’s.

Skidmore continued: “With the Government’s response to my Net-Zero Review due out by the end of the month, we now have less than 10 days to find out what [Sunak’s] Government’s appetite will be – are we going to strategically position ourselves to maintain leadership or are we going to seed that leadership to another?

“I’m really nervous about it… there are market decisions now resting on this. If the Government doesn’t set out a clear, strategic pathway to net-zero then we will continue to miss out.”

Testing appetite

Other MPs in the Conservative Environment Network have joined Skidmore in recent weeks in emphasising the national levelling up opportunities and international competition opportunities of providing more clarity on growing green sectors.

Skidmore conceded that he is not yet sure whether these calls to action are being properly heard, given Sunak’s initial approach of glossing over environmental topics and arguing that the general public and business cared more about immigration and the short-term economic outlook.

“I won’t deny that I wasn’t disappointed when the five priorities popped up and climate change and setting out a green industrial strategy wasn’t there,” Skidmore said, referring to Prime Minister’s first speech of the year, made on 4 January. That speech set out three economic pledges, plus pledges to “reduce NHS waiting lists” and “stop the boats”. Sunak made no mention of climate or the environment despite pledging “a better future”.

“The UK has traditionally been a leader in this regard and with things like Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and the EU Green Deal, we now face a real risk of falling behind in the net-zero race.“

Skidmore was then asked which of his Review recommendations are most important for the Government to adopt. He repeated the points he recently made at the edie 23 conference, emphasising that adopting all recommendations in full is both possible and preferable. He highlighted how the delivery of all recommendations hinges on the creation of a dedicated Office for Net-Zero Delivery – an arms-length body responsible for holding all Departments to account and ensuring that they work in a joined-up fashion.

Skidmore also advocated for a net-zero remit for Ofgem, “because at the moment we have our hands tied behind our back when it comes to building out the infrastructure we need”.

Energy Minister Lord Callanan has advocated against introducing such a remit, against Skidmore’s advice and against the advice of several of his peers in the House of Lords, including Lord Teverson and Baroness Hayman. However, the Government is set to reform the planning process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects including energy generation projects.

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