Rishi Sunak: What are the climate credentials of the UK’s next Prime Minister?

Following Liz Truss’s resignation last week, Rishi Sunak was confirmed as new Conservative Party leader on Monday (24 October). Here, we look at his climate policy record and the green (and not so green) comments he made during his leadership bid.

Rishi Sunak: What are the climate credentials of the UK’s next Prime Minister?

Image: HM Treasury CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hmtreasury/52112757554/

After Truss announced her resignation last week, making her the UK’s shortest-serving PM, a mini leadership race was confirmed. Following Boris Johnson’s decision to drop out and Penny Mordaunt’s failure to gain the backing of the required 100 MPs, Rishi Sunak was the only remaining contender at 2pm today. Shortly after that, he was announced as Conservative Party leader and the next Prime Minister. He will have his first official weekly meeting with the King later this week.

Sunak’s priorities will undeniably be undoing some of the economic damage brought on by Truss’s administration and planning ahead for the longer energy prices and cost of living crises. However, it has been stated that clarifying his environmental stance should also be key.

Writing in Conservative Home News today, Conservative Environment Network director Sam Hall stated that the perception of the Party as willing to backtrack on its own environmental commitments under Truss has “certainly contributed to the government’s poor polling performance”.

He added that many MPs were “aggrieved” after pushing hard for legislation such as the Climate Change Act and Environment Bill, and continually arguing that economic and environmental stewardship go hand in hand”.  With this in mind, edie takes a look at Sunak’s record on climate, nature and energy.

Leadership bid rhetoric

Fracking, some have argued, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Truss. Dozens of rebel Tories voted to bring back the effective ban on fracking earlier this month after being told that doing so would be a vote of no confidence in Truss. Included in this cohort was Kwasi Kwarteng, Truss’s first Chancellor and former Energy Secretary.

Maintaining the moratorium on fracking was a pledge detailed in the Conservative Party Manifesto at the last general election in 2019. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recommended keeping the ban in place to support an orderly net-zero transition. However, both Sunak and Truss said they would lift the ban in communities where there was local support, using the energy price crisis as an argument in favour of the move. After seeing the chaos around the vote, Sunak may well reconsider his stance. At present, the ban has been lifted, but ‘local support’ has not been formally defined. Some argue that no UK areas with basins would offer support. There is also the matter of Cuadrilla’s own founder coming out to say fracking in Britain is not practical.

Sunak was arguably less anti-renewables than Truss during his leadership bid. However, he penned an article for the Telegraph back in August, arguing that it was “pro-farmer” to consider restricting solar development on agricultural land. Under Sunak, the Government may well press ahead with plans to effectively ban solar planning applications on swathes of farmland. The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is due to publish its proposals before the end of the month, following widespread media reports of the potential change.

Sunak also seemed to be in agreement with Truss that a new, large licensing round for oil and gas permits in the North Sea this season would be a good move.

The issue which Sunak and Truss spent most time debating was her approach to taxation. Most of her initial mini-budget has now been scrapped, but green groups have expressed concerns that plans to relax planning rules in ‘Investment Zones’ – and, indeed, across the country as part of a Truss-led, post-Brexit deregulation drive – may be kept in place. Rules on things including water quality, soil quality, biodiversity and other environmental issues are on the metaphorical chopping block. Sunak had stated an intention to get rid of remaining EU law within 100 days of being PM and is a vocal advocate for Free Ports.

Unlike Truss, Sunak is a signatory to the Conservative Environment Network’s pledge. He has also repeatedly stated the importance of his Party delivering on the 25-Year Environment Plan and Environment Bill.  Additionally, Sunak dedicated time in his leadership bid to emphasise the importance of new and expanded building energy efficiency schemes – but provided scant detail as to specific plans.

A green Chancellor?

This time last year, Sunak was Chancellor under Boris Johnson.

Under Sunak, the Treasury completed its Net-Zero Review. His numerous Budget Statements have also included many a headline-grabbing inclusion on the net-zero transition, including the launch of the National Infrastructure Bank with climate as a core remit; the creation of a £1bn Net-Zero Innovation fundthe launch of sovereign green savings bonds and ‘pocket parks’ for neglected urban spaces.

At COP26, Sunak was greeted by climate protestors but went on to outline a vision of making the UK the ‘world’s first net-zero financial centre’ and to contribute to global efforts to “rewire the financial system for net-zero”. Measures taken to support this transition include the launch of a £16bn sovereign green bond package and the launch of a net-zero transition plan mandate for large, high-emitting businesses from 2023. But expert organisations have stated in 2022 that the approach taken by Sunak is not foolproof, with major issues remaining.

The UK’s COP26 Unit spent much of the two-week climate conference in Glasgow setting up the framework to ensure that developed nations contributed their “fair share” of $100bn in annual funding for developed nations to respond and adapt to the climate crisis. Research from the Overseas Development Institute found that, under Sunak, the UK gave $3.2bn towards this goal in 2020, a little over half of what was calculated as the nation’s fair share.

Under Sunak, the Treasury has also, reportedly, been the cause of much frustration for Johnson on the progress of some other green policies. It reportedly delayed the Heat and Buildings Strategy, then mismanaged the delivery of the Green Homes Grant in partnership with BEIS, for example.

Sunak was also behind some decisions that have proven vastly unpopular across the UK’s green economy as Chancellor. In announcing a windfall tax on fossil fuel giants (which was reluctantly introduced following lobbying from Labour) he also offered a 91% tax super deduction for these businesses’ investments in additional oil and gas extraction. Read edie’s rundown of that move here. Similarly, he has encouraged Britain’s biggest banks to keep funding oil and gas firms.

Voting record and personal interests

Sunak has almost always voted in line with the rest of his Party and, since first becoming an MP in 2015, has not taken a rebel stance in most votes. As such, his environmental voting record on They Work For You does not look particularly rosy at first glance.

He is classed as generally voting against measures to prevent climate change. In 2021, he voted against a potential ban of peatland burning and also against a requirement for public bodies to be subjected to the “polluter pays” principle, for example.

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    The academic scientific background of most professional politicians is almost certain to be somewhat scant, and indeed this must affect their understanding of the advice given them in this field.
    I understand that in France, the System requires an admixture of both the social sciences and the technical branch to be part of the politicians’ brief.
    Good idea???
    Richard Phillips

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