The next prime minister will inherit bold environmental promises that voters expect to be honoured. Despite the hopes of a few loud net zero sceptics, and some environmentalists’ fears, the final three contenders for the top job have committed to maintaining those promises and continuing the Conservative Party’s environmental leadership.
Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss all signed the Conservative Environment Network’s (CEN) five-point environment pledge, committing to achieve net zero by 2050 and halt the decline of nature by the end of this decade. They also pledged to continue reforms to agricultural subsidies, rollout cheap renewables and support new clean energy technologies.
As Conservative MPs narrow down the candidates to the final two for the party membership ballot, it is clear that no contender wants to surrender environmental issues to the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats ahead of the next election.
As polling for CEN has shown, two-thirds of Conservative voters are proud the UK is taking a leading role in tackling climate change. A majority think achieving net zero would be good for jobs and the economy. And 27 per cent of the party’s voters from 2019 would likely ditch the party if they weakened the UK’s net zero target.
That’s why, in the next round of the leadership contest, the remaining two candidates would be wise to build on the CEN pledge and set out their ideas for improving the environment. They will need to prove their green credentials to voters and show how they will deliver their commitments.
I hope we see substantive proposals put forward and debated – a plan to cut the cost of living through insulating homes and cutting taxes on green products, a manifesto to clean up our rivers by getting tougher with water companies and rewarding nature-friendly farming, or green reforms to EU red tape around innovative clean technologies.
Alongside MPs, no one appreciates the strength of public support for environmental action more than the party’s door-knocking members. Public opinion will favour the contender who best embraces net zero as a path to end the UK’s contribution to climate change, cut the cost of living and drive economic growth.
Ultimately, the Conservatives are looking for another election winner. MPs and party members know net zero was a key pledge in Boris Johnson’s majority-winning manifesto, but want to see a clear, affordable plan to get there. They also know how important winning new clean industries are to levelling up the red wall and how salient issues like river pollution are in the blue wall.
Not only is the environmental case for going faster on net zero strong, but the economic and security arguments are too. Unless we drastically reduce our emissions, climate change will mean more frequent and more destructive floods, droughts, and heat waves, while rising sea levels will threaten our coastline. So long as we are reliant on expensive and volatile fossil fuels, we will be exposed to inflation-causing energy crunches. And until we decarbonise, we will rely on fossil fuel imports under the malign influence of Vladimir Putin.
Building more renewables will power our homes and businesses with cheap, homegrown energy. Insulating more homes will lower bills, while growing the electric car market will soon cut the cost of driving. And new clean industries like carbon capture and clean hydrogen production will grow our economy, bringing jobs and investment to our industrial heartlands.
All three leadership candidates understand this opportunity, along with the vast majority of Conservative MPs, not least the half of backbench MPs who have signed up to CEN’s Parliamentary caucus. It’s why we’ve seen the party reject net zero scepticism. And it’s why in the coming weeks, we can expect to see the final two candidates compete to be the greenest – to win the party, the country, cut the cost of living and deliver economic growth.
First published by the Independent. Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.