Truss v Sunak: Who is best placed to lead the country on climate and net-zero?
The first of many TV debates between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak that will help determine the next Prime Minister of the UK spent very little time addressing climate and green policy, so edie has rounded up their approaches to climate and environmental legislation.
As the leadership bids have been whittled down to the final two it is becoming alarmingly clear that net-zero is plummeting down the priority agenda for the Conservative Party.
Despite the ongoing energy price crisis and the recent record-breaking temperatures, party members are more concerned about cutting taxes, an impending general election and increasing defence spending.
Indeed, a recent YouGov poll found that only 4% of surveyed Conservative members felt that net-zero should be one of their top priority areas. Out of 10 key policy areas, net-zero ranked last in terms of priorities.
It hasn’t helped that media appearances from Truss and Sunak, to date, have not focused on the climate.
As reported by Open Democracy, neither Truss or Sunak have yet to be quizzed on climate as part of media interviews, with the latter able to offer just two minutes of air time to green policies on the Andrew Marr show.
Truss and Sunak are the last two left standing in terms of naming the next Prime Minister and the next six weeks will see them go head to head across a variety of different platforms and debates. This week, the BBC hosted a live debate between the two, where they were quizzed on a wide range of topics, including the economy, the Russian war and distancing the nation from China.
Net-zero, and climate policies more broadly, were notably absent from last night’s discussion. Presenter Sophie Raworth did ask Truss and Sunak about sustainability, but framed it through the lens of what they personally do, rather than what policies they would introduce.
Sunak noted the advice offered to him by his daughters about reducing energy efficiency and recycling more, while Truss claimed to be a teenage eco-warrior when she was younger and that she was “an environmentalist before it was fashionable”.
Neither of the two candidates to become the next Prime Minister have shown a willingness to discuss actual policies related to the climate crisis, a trend which has not been helped by the media’s perceived lack of willingness to provide them with ample time and questions to do so.
While both Truss and Sunak have reiterated a top-line commitment to the net-zero emissions target set for 2050, both have relatively poor track records on climate and have also signalled that some green legislation may be relaxed if they become the next Prime Minister.
With little guarantee that either of the final two frontrunners will face questions on the climate crisis over the next six weeks, edie has rounded up their current and previous voting patterns on climate, as well as key green initiatives that they introduced (or in some cases vetoed) during their time in Cabinet.
Current Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Liz Truss, has served in numerous cabinet roles, including International Trade Secretary and Environment Secretary. She has previously stood in the 2001 and 2005 general elections.
During her time as Environment Secretary, Truss introduced the controversial cuts to subsidies to solar farms, criticising them as a “blight” on the UK’s natural landscape. Truss also claimed that solar farms hindered food production. According to DeSmog, these policies were not “backed up by any evidence from her department”.
Truss has been criticised for overseas trips, most recently for failing to distance the UK from trade deals with Gulf states accused of human rights abuses. While chief secretary to the Treasury in 2018, Truss also met with lobby groups linked to climate change denial.
More recently, Truss has faced criticism from more than 200 NGOs over proposed reforms to international development plans. Truss is reported to have ordered changes in the way the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) spends aid funding, with less focus given to health, climate change and conflict prevention. NGOs criticised the plans, claiming it “will undermine the UK’s ability to play our part globally in tackling urgent challenges”.
Truss, has, however, commonly spoken for the need to act on the climate crisis, and at the Party Hustings on 17 July, said she’d attend COP27 and the 15th biodiversity COP in a bid to showcase Britain as a leader on the world stage.
The former Environment minister recently told the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) at that Hustings event that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the case for the UK to introduce policies focused on energy security.
However, partly in response to the energy crisis, Truss has suggested that she would pause some green funding initiatives in order to increase North Sea gas extraction. During an interview with The Spectator, Truss said she may introduce a “temporary moratorium on the green energy levy to enable businesses and industry to thrive while looking at the best way of delivering net-zero”.
Truss has been back by notable Conservative advocates for climate action, including BEIS Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and prominent climate MP Zac Goldsmith, who recently tweeted that most Conservative Party contenders were “people who, on the whole, couldn’t give a shit about climate and nature”.
In tendering his resignation as Chancellor, Rishi Sunak stated: “I am aware this may be my last ministerial job”. Making it to the last two is commendable for an MP that has only been serving since 2015.
Despite a much briefer tenure than Truss, Sunak has been pushed into the green policy sphere (although some reports suggest he was reluctant to do so). 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 fund; the 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 has also been behind some decisions that have proven vastly unpopular across the UK’s green economy as Chancellor. Most recently, 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.
Reports also suggest that Sunak would move to ensure a ban on onshore windfarms – a decision that is popular amongst the party despite the public’s broad support for the technology. However, Sunak also wants to introduce a legal mandate and policy framework to ensure that Britain could tap into a “self-sufficient” energy network and supply by 2045. Offshore wind, which recently secured a new record-low strike price in the latest Government auctions, would likely be at the heart of this target.
Sunak also told the CEN Hustings that he would look to introduce new energy efficiency schemes for housing, largely focused on smart controls, low-carbon heating and insulation as cost-effective ways to respond to the energy crisis.
All in all, Sunak has made big promises on climate but has repeatedly been criticised for failing to deliver a joined-up approach. As a supporter of Johnson, Sunak would likely stick with the existing approach to climate-related target setting. While his background is in finance and tech, and he’s been criticised before for betting on high-tech options for the low-carbon transition, he has also stated a personal passion for nature restoration – particularly peatlands in Britain.
Regardless of who emerges as the next Prime Minister, their immediate focus will be on planning and campaigning for a likely General Election in the Autumn, at which point many voters may well turn towards Labour and its manifesto for a green industrial revolution to keep progress ticking towards net-zero.
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