Week-in-Review: Rishi Sunak has a net zero problem

Expectations were high ahead of the prime minister’s “Green Day” blitz on Friday — much too high for the government, it seems, as officials undertook an eleventh-hour hype management exercise. References to the 1990s California rock band were dropped from ministerial diaries as the government transitioned to the more cautious “Energy Security Day” tagline, revised further to “Powering up Britain”. As the bland spin machine churned overtime, observers wondered whether the “world-beating” announcements could possibly deliver on the government’s climate commitments.

After a series of false dawns, “Green Day” is the government’s third attempt in as many years to show how Britain would hit its statutory net zero target by 2050. It follows the 2021 energy strategy which was deemed so lacking that the courts insisted ministers have another go. The court wanted a new plan by March 2023 and the government were just in time. Rubbished for a lack of detail in its last attempt, the government would be taking no risks this time and 3,000 pages were duly lumbered onto gov.uk on Friday morning. 

The tranche of documents followed urgent warnings by the government’s official advisers, including net zero review author Chris Skidmore MP, who called for a rapid rollout of onshore wind and solar panels in January, and Wednesday’s Climate Change Committee report, which described Britain as “strikingly unprepared” for the crisis to come. 

So at least three slogans and 3,000 pages of documents later, what more do we know now about the government’s net zero strategy? Well — between the commitments on carbon capture technology, green hydrogen production projects, floating offshore wind and the “Great British Nuclear” organisation — the reliance on consultations and the expediting of existing policy meant there was no seismic “big bazooka” that former COP26 president Alok Sharma had hoped. “What was billed with huge hype as the government’s ‘green day’”, Labour spokesperson Ed Miliband explained, “turns out to be a weak and feeble groundhog day”.

Of course, this was a politically tricky moment for the government and Grant Shapps, head of the recently inaugurated energy security and net zero department (DESNZ). On the one hand, Shapps was desperate to show that the government remains committed to its statutory net zero target by 2050 — he legally had no choice. But the government is equally anxious not to impose a slew of restrictions on households and vehicle owners. 

It is a balancing act that the very name for the new energy security and net zero department reflects. The creation of the new DESNZ has allowed the prime minister to explain that climate change has been given new prominence in government. But the fore-fronting of the “energy security” aspect of the brief — at the expense of net zero — arguably reflects a broader reluctance in government to emphasise climate commitments. The approach mirrors the discursive U-turn away from “Green Day” undertaken before Friday. 

This reluctance is informed by a few constraints, the most obvious of which is financial. Following the “mini-budget” in September, the government has imposed severe limitations on spending, limitations that have greatly narrowed the scope for net zero activism. That there was so little new money provided for by the “Powering up Britain” framework has left critics wondering whether this strategy will too end up in the courts. 

But the most exacting constraint on the government climate commitments is political. There are sharp divisions among Conservative MPs over net zero and significant internal dissent has emerged in recent years over specific aspects of climate policy. The prime minister may still be scarred from his onshore wind U-turn early on in his premiership, which saw him commit to the de facto ban before reneging. The furore around whether or not he would attend COP27, furthermore, demonstrates the continuing potential for political controversy on climate politics. The PM will also remember the fracking vote in October which proved the final straw in Liz Truss’ ailing administration.

The splits in the Conservative party on green policy have been institutionalised by the formation of two key factional groupings: the parliamentary arm of the Conservative Environment Network’s (CEN), which is broadly supportive of ambitious net zero strategy, and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), which opposes far-reaching climate policy action.

In the fallout of “Green Day”, the evidence suggests that the prime minister has failed to satisfy either faction. 

Reflecting on comments made by Labour climate spokesperson Miliband, Chris Skidmore told the House of Commons on Friday: “Net Zero is not just about 2050, we can’t keep on kicking the can down the road. We don’t have 28 years, we’ve got seven years to deliver”. Although pointed at Labour, it seemed a coded message to his own party. The intended audience became clearer as the net zero review author affirmed: “I hope the minister will urge both this party on this side and any other climate delayers — who become the new climate deniers — that ultimately net zero is the future for the UK”. 

Sitting alongside Skidmore, COP alum Alok Sharma was arguably even more critical: 

The reality is that the US, the EU and other nations are speeding up and attracting billions and billions right now of private sector investment. Why are we going to wait until the Autumn to get a response to that? Don’t we need to speed that up and have a response now in terms of measures to deal with the Inflation Reduction Act and other measures from other measures?

Sharma was referring to Joe Biden’s $370bn subsidy programme designed to drive development of more clean energy. The “green day” push had been expected in some quarters to address Biden’s plan alongside the EU’s own “Green Deal” approach. But it was not forthcoming. In fact, in an article for The Times, chancellor Jeremy Hunt declared the UK would not go “toe-to-toe [with the US] … in some distortive global subsidy race”. 

Hunt insisted that the UK would not be complicit in the world economy’s creeping protectionism, insisting that we risk getting trapped in a transatlantic green subsidy war. But critics including Sharma argue that by failing to step up clean energy subsidies, technology trailblazers will turn away from Britain, taking investment and jobs with them.

Of course, a large scale subsidy programme would invoke the ire of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Conservative MPs. 

Writing for ConservativeHome ahead of “Green Day”, NZSG chair Craig Mackinlay described Skidmore’s net zero review as “high on hyperbole [and] lower on practicalities and costs”. Mackinlay urged the government to avoid “succumbing to the siren songs of campaigners and socialists that seek to shut down our domestic industry”. Only by exercising fiscal constraint on climate commitments, he argued, would “we stand a chance of meeting the prime minister’s priorities: halving inflation, growing the economy, and getting the national debt falling”.

Mackinlay’s contribution echoed that of Esther Mcvey, a former Conservative leadership candidate and NZSG member, who decried the “lunacy” of the “mad rush for Net Zero” in an article for the Express.

Critically the NZSG, which is supported by around 50 MPs, is not limited in its influence to the backbenches. Its former vice-chair Steve Baker is currently a minister at the Northern Ireland Office and Robert Halfon, once touted as a prominent member, holds a post in the education department. Pressure within government to go cautious on climate may have been crucial ahead of the so-called “Green Day” blitz. 

Wanted: a green prime minister

It wasn’t long ago that Conservative prime ministers wore the 2050 net zero commitment as a badge of honour. It was Theresa May who made Britain the first major economy to enshrine a net zero target into law, a move which was embraced by Boris Johnson prominently at COP26 in Glasgow. 

In fact under Johnson, upholding the net-zero target was one of the six promises which formed the 2019 Conservative manifesto. Now, neither net zero nor energy security feature in the five pledges Sunak has identified for government. Although the former prime minister was uncharacteristically silent on Friday — preparing for a potential by-election in Uxbridge no doubt — he may in the future choose to pester his successor on his climate commitments. Back in November, his presence at COP27 was a crucial factor in forcing the PM to board an Egypt-bound jet. 

So with Labour intending to run the next election on a plan for a “green industrial revolution”, the settling of the Conservative party’s internal warfare on climate change seems long overdue. Forget the planet, net zero fudges may prove unsustainable for Rishi Sunak’s political prospects come 2024.