The U.K. has a new Prime Minister, and British environmentalists are breathing a small, qualified, sigh of relief.
Rishi Sunak, a former finance minister, was confirmed as the new leader of the ruling Conservative Party on Monday, after a weekend of chaotic intra-party negotiations to replace Liz Truss, who resigned on Oct. 21 after just 44 days in office, amid fierce backlash to her far-right economic agenda. (Truss had replaced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned in July after a series of scandals.) And while Sunak is by no means an environmental champion, campaigners are cautiously optimistic that he may bring the U.K.’s climate fight back from the brink.
Truss’s short time at the helm of the world’s fifth largest economy was a whirlwind for British climate policy. A long-time advocate of smaller government and deregulation who modeled herself on Margaret Thatcher, Truss had expressed skepticism about the ambitious action needed to reach the U.K.’s 2050 net-zero emissions goal—which Johnson had supported. Once in office, she immediately moved to outlaw solar power on most farmland, overturn a widely-supported ban on fracking, and scrap hundreds of laws and subsidy schemes designed to protect nature. Truss also chose Jacob Rees-Mogg as her energy secretary, a lawmaker who has questioned whether climate change is caused by human activity.
In a country where polls show strong bipartisan support for action to cut emissions, Truss’s environmental agenda was “quite shocking,” says Ed Matthew, campaigns director at European climate think tank E3G. “Liz Truss represented the nadir when it came to commitment to climate action.”
Britain’s newest Prime Minister is not exactly the peak. As a lawmaker, first elected in 2015, Sunak has usually voted against measures to lower emissions. As finance minister from 2020 to 2022, he cut funding for key energy efficiency measures. And as a candidate for the Conservative leadership this summer—which he initially lost to Truss—his enthusiasm for clean energy was at best lukewarm.
But, adds Matthew: “The evidence is that he is certainly prepared to listen more to science than Liz Truss was. Climate change presents an existential threat to the British economy and if he can’t grasp that, whatever actions he takes will not be enough to provide future prosperity for this country.”
What is Sunak’s record on climate action?
Pretty poor. In March 2021, cuts by Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer led to the abandonment of a $1.7 billion scheme to insulate U.K. homes. In October that year, on the eve of the COP26 U.N. climate summit hosted by the U.K., Sunak announced a plan to halve taxes on domestic flights—a move that would encourage air travel and boost its emissions. He also cut the U.K.’s foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income, shaving millions off the country’s funds to help poorer countries adapt to climate change—at a time when campaigners say rich countries need to dramatically scale up climate finance.
Sunak has, however, always been enthusiastic about the business world’s role in the energy transition, pledging $17 billion to help London become a “hub for green finance,” as a way to sharpen the city’s softened competitive edge after Brexit. In November 2021, Sunak also announced a world-first scheme to force U.K.-based companies to publish net-zero transition plans, saying the U.K. “has a responsibility to lead the way” on financing climate action.
Kierra Box, a U.K.-based campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says Sunak “has talked the talk” around delivering the government’s net-zero pledges. But his economic position—on the right of the Conservative Party—has prevented him from taking the more interventionist moves that many experts say are needed to lower the U.K.’s emissions in the short term, such as taxing high polluting activities or funding large scale low-carbon infrastructure projects. “His previous attitude to delivering growth has always prioritized deregulation and finding technological solutions to the climate crisis,” she says, citing Sunak’s support for unproven carbon capture technologies over measures to cut fossil fuel use. “That allows him to ignore some of the bigger and more immediate challenges.”
What will Sunak do for the climate now?
There is reason for hope on some key areas of climate policy. During his leadership campaign in July, Sunak told the Times of London that he wanted to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a drive to retrofit U.K. homes, which are leak more heat than most buildings in Europe. And while Sunak oversaw the cancellation of a previous program to do just that in 2021, advocates say the economic case for insulation is now undeniable: the price of natural gas, which most homes in the U.K. use for heating, has surged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even after a government assistance package announced under Truss, Brits’ energy bills will have doubled by the end of 2022.
“There’s a strong case to be made that you really can’t have economic growth without a focus on energy efficiency,” says Juliet Philips, a heat and buildings expert at E3G. “It’s the number one way we can reduce the amount people are spending on energy bills and could be spending elsewhere in the economy instead.”
Environmentalists say the natural gas crisis also boosts the case for decarbonizing the U.K.’s energy supply through a massive expansion of wind and solar power—but it’s not clear that the new Prime Minister feels the same. Sunak shared Truss’s support for overturning the U.K.’s fracking ban over the summer, and pledged not to relax restrictions on building onshore wind farms “in recognition of the distress and disruption” that they can cause to communities who live near them. (Truss in fact did cut the restrictions in September, to the surprise of campaigners.)
Sunak will face pressure to rethink those positions from the Labour Party. In recent weeks, the leftist opposition has expanded its polling lead over the Conservatives to a multi-decade record of 39 percentage points. In early October, the party made decarbonization the center of its annual conference, and pledged to spend billions creating a national clean energy company and turning the U.K. into a clean energy “superpower” by 2030.
The specter of Truss’s brief premiership may also weigh on Sunak, says Box, of Friends of the Earth. Legalizing fracking—along with the rest of Truss’s agenda—proved deeply unpopular, and Sunak may wish to distance himself from his predecessor’s environmental record. “He’ll need to learn the lessons of Liz Truss’s failures, and reverse the rest of her agenda,” Box says, adding: “There is definite room for hope, because it could hardly be worse than Truss.”
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