18 July 2022

Ditching Net Zero would be a huge step backwards for the next PM


The Conservative leadership race is hotting up. As we come to cast our votes in the third round ballot today, temperatures in Westminster and the UK could reach record levels.

The public are right to want to know what we intend to do: not just to prevent thousands of deaths during a heatwave, but how we can take real, measurable steps to reduce the impact of climate change.

Just over a week ago, however, it seemed that the UK’s climate policies and ‘net zero’ might be under threat. No candidates mentioned net zero in their launches, while one declared the target to be an ‘arbitrary’ one, contrary to the views of thousands of climate scientists. Instead there were calls to delay action on net zero, in favour of tackling the cost of living crisis – ignoring the very fact that this is a crisis brought on by our continued dependence fossil fuels.

This would have been a massive mis-step. It would have shot to pieces the UK’s international standing and climate leadership, especially given the progress that Alok Sharma made at COP26 in Glasgow last year. The eyes of the world are watching what the UK does, especially since we still hold the UN presidency on climate change. It would have also shot to pieces the green industrial revolution that is currently taking place across northern post-industrial communities, where they are witnessing a revival in manufacturing thanks to green industries. Net Zero is a passport to greater opportunity and growth across the north; to have thrown that opportunity away would have been electoral suicide for the new Conservative party leader.

Voters are rightly concerned about protecting and preserving the environment that sustains them and their families. Polling has always consistently shown that for all voters, action on the environment, nature and climate change influences who they vote for. In a recent poll, for instance, of over 3,000 voters in marginal Red Walls seats, tackling climate change and the environment was the second most important issue behind the NHS: 53% wanted more action on climate change, compared to 9% who did not.

Indeed, recent polling by the think tank Onward highlighted that abandoning the net zero target could cost 1.3 million votes. Not only do 64% of voters support net zero emissions by 2050, compared to 9% who are opposed, 46% of those polled indicated that they would be less likely to vote for a party that got rid of net zero.

That’s why I had to take action during this leadership contest – not to stand myself (God forbid), but to stand up for everyone who wants to make climate change an urgent priority, and for protecting our net zero commitments. Along with the 135 strong back-benchers in the Conservative Environment Network, and the net zero Support Group which I chair, all leadership candidates have been encouraged to speak out, and speak up, for the environment.

At every stage, this has been my priority during the leadership race. I’m pleased that nearly every candidate has now agreed to sign the Conservative Environment Pledge- which commits to net zero by 2050 along with a commitment to prioritising action on the environment. Today, I’m delighted that COP26 President Alok Sharma is chairing an environment hustings of all candidates that I’ve organised, to further hold all candidates to commit further to tackling climate change.

The Conservative Party has a strong record of achievement in standing up for conserving our environment and tackling climate change. We have not only recently passed the landmark Environment Act into law, the party has ensured that the UK has made world-leading progress on decarbonisation, reducing emissions by 47% compared to 1990 levels at the same time as doubling the size of our economy, while becoming the first G7 country to sign net zero by 2050 into law.

To have risked throwing this away, or turning net zero into a culture war, wouldn’t only have placed any future electoral success of the party in grave danger, it would have meant placing the lives of the most vulnerable and future generations under threat too. Climate change may be here to stay, but our chance to prevent future change is now. All Conservative candidates still in the race must recognise the responsibility they have to maintain and hold fast to the climate and environment commitments the UK has made.

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Chris Skidmore is a former Energy and Climate Change Minister and chairs the Net Zero Support Group of MPs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.