It’s Rishi Sunak’s ‘green day.’ Just don’t mention net zero
Press play to listen to this article
Voiced by artificial intelligence.
LONDON — Britain used to shout about its net zero targets. Not anymore.
Worn as a badge of honor by previous Conservative governments — Theresa May made Britain the first major economy to enshrine a net zero target into law, while Boris Johnson was a vocal advocate of environmental policies — the pledge to eliminate carbon emissions now finds itself taking a back seat to Rishi Sunak’s tougher-sounding promise of “energy security” for the nation.
To that end, Sunak and his energy security secretary, Grant Shapps, will travel to a location outside London Thursday to unveil a mish-mash of decarbonization initiatives badged collectively as an “energy revolution.”
The push had originally been dubbed “green day” in Whitehall, according to Bloomberg, and was intended to reveal more details of the U.K.’s response to green subsidies under U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
You may like
But British government officials have since been desperate to play this down, with one insisting that “green day” is “actually energy security day.” Business figures close to Shapps’ newly-created Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) say his team seems keen to emphasize the first half of his brief and reluctant to trumpet the second, fearing a Tory backlash.
The shift in messaging offers telling insights into current Conservative thinking on climate, while doing little to assuage fears that the party’s enthusiasm for net zero may be running out of steam.
“This will be a moment to judge the level of commitment,” former COP26 President and Conservative MP Alok Sharma, a net zero advocate, told POLITICO.
Power and influence
Sunak’s creation in February of DESNZ allows him to argue the issues around energy and climate have been given new prominence in Whitehall, and most onlookers agree that a more tightly-defined ministry is a good thing.
“The problem is it could struggle to influence other departments,” said Tom Sasse, net zero lead at the Institute for Government think tank. “The drive has to come from power brokers,” he added, listing as examples Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, and Sunak himself. “There is a question as to whether Sunak will use political capital to get new net zero policies over the line.”
Hunt has shown little sign of wanting to weigh in so far. Treasury officials distanced themselves from the “green day” plans being set out Thursday, which served to underline the shortage of new cash to support Britain’s net zero ambitions.
As for the prime minister, a former government aide said, “Boris clearly really got it, but it’s not one of Rishi’s top priorities.”
They suggested Sunak’s recalcitrance was based on an assumption “that it isn’t as much of a priority for voters, which I think is a mistake.”
No. 10 aides have persistently rejected this analysis, pointing to his longstanding support for green finance initiatives and to his personal involvement in Thursday’s event.
But Sunak and Shapps are undoubtedly conscious of growing mutterings of discontent on Conservative backbenches about the U.K.’s net zero targets, even as polling shows the British public overwhelmingly supports decarbonization measures.
Former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, a perennial thorn in the Tory party’s side, is also campaigning against net zero.
Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, chair of the backbench Net Zero Scrutiny Group, urged ministers to cut taxes for oil and gas firms and pledge further exploration of fossil fuels in the North Sea as part of their latest energy plan.
“This could be the beginning of a more balanced and rational approach to net zero,” he said. “One that recognizes the continued importance of the oil and gas industry to our economy, and the massive risks to energy security and affordability if we tax the sector out of existence.”
What’s being announced
The reality is that Thursday’s announcements have been forced, in part, by the government’s previous failure to hand in its homework.
Last year the U.K. High Court ordered ministers to submit an improved version of their net zero plan by the end of March 2023, demanding extra data on how the pledge to hit zero carbon emissions by 2050 would actually work.
As well as providing that update, the government will respond to an independent review carried out by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, which called for 25 actions by 2025, including the rapid rollout of onshore wind and solar panels, and to Wednesday’s damning U.K. Climate Change Committee report, which described Britain as “strikingly unprepared” for global warming.
Ministers are also expected to talk up the next phase of already-trailed plans for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects, beef up funds for offshore wind, hydrogen-fueled energy and home insulation schemes, and seek private investment for the manufacture and supply of heat pumps.
Speaking ahead of the launch, Shapps hailed “access to cheap, abundant and reliable energy” as “the foundation stone of a thriving economy.”
But even as Shapps trumpets a dizzying array of consultations, investment incentives and renamed efficiency drives, climate experts are watching closely for the gaps in their program.
“I’m pretty confident that the numbers that come out on net zero won’t add up,” said Dustin Benton, policy director at Green Alliance. “That was obviously why they lost the court case. And that could be one reason why they’re trying to emphasize the energy security side of things.”
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow climate secretary, said: “What was billed with huge hype as the government’s ‘green day’ turns out to be a weak and feeble groundhog day of re-announcements, reheated policy, and no new investment.”
Ministers are not expected to say anything about reviewing the Energy Charter Treaty, which many regard as incompatible with the net zero target. Omitting an update on the zero-emissions vehicle mandate would leave the car industry adrift.
Ministers remain tight-lipped on any measures aimed at unleashing new onshore wind projects, which will be closely watched after rebel Tory MPs forced a climbdown on the issue in December.
Another likely source of pain is inaction from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which has already been warned of legal consequences over its failure to say how it plans to reduce emissions.
A lobbyist said DEFRA’s handling of key policies had been “diabolical” and a “shambles,” singling out a consultation on making recycling collections consistent across England, which closed in July 2021 and has not yet had a response.
Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey is thought to be reluctant to take on the farming lobby with an election round the corner, even though her relationship with the sector is already strained. An ally of Coffey insisted she was “delivery-focused” and “determined to support farmers in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”
‘Big bazooka’ time
More broadly, “energy security day” will not provide comprehensive answers to what the U.K. is doing to gain an advantage in the global green race.
The U.S., EU and Canada have all announced massive new state subsidy programs aimed at competing with China, and one another, for dominance in green tech industries.
Sharma called for a “big bazooka moment” and warned that if the government failed to step up on Thursday, the U.K. could “get left behind.”
But that appears to have been punted to later in the year, with Hunt appointing former business minister Richard Harrington to oversee a review of foreign investment due to report in the fall.
Without a serious response, at least, to Biden’s green subsidies, Britain may be left playing catch-up for decades to come.