It has been an extraordinary month. It is just over two weeks since Liz Truss became prime minister and 13 days since she announced a huge energy support package. Rarely can such a big announcement have been subject to so little scrutiny. As the Commons debated it, it became clear that the Queen’s life was drawing to an end. “Fierce and bitter controversies… were hushed” and politics paused for a period of national mourning and reflection.
But this week politics returns with a vengeance. We will get a better idea of ministers’ priorities; the prime minister will give a speech to the UN (will she, like Boris Johnson, call for action on climate and nature?); and, on Friday, there will be a mini-budget (Green Alliance is holding an online post-budget event and has produced a number of budget briefings).
Does Liz Truss believe the environment is at the heart of conservatism?
By the end of the week, we will have a much better idea of the new prime minister’s priorities. Does she, as many fear, want to lead an unprecedentedly right wing, deregulatory, low standards administration, intent on using ‘Brexit freedoms’ to drive down standards? Or is she a mainstream Conservative who recognises, in the words of the Conservative Environment Network pledge she signed, that “care for the environment is core to conservatism”?
We already know that the government’s key theme will be economic growth, not ‘levelling up’. We also know that Liz Truss can be pragmatic (to the tune of around £150 billion). The challenge for environmentalists, if we think this is a government with which we can do business, will be to persuade ministers that action on climate and nature boosts growth, rather than hinders it.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has said so many foolish things about climate policy that his appointment as business secretary seemed a bad joke. But the fact that Graham Stuart, a green Tory, is climate minister with a seat at the cabinet table gives hope. As does Chris Skidmore being in charge of the review to ensure that net zero by 2050 (to which the prime minister says she is “completely committed”) is delivered “in a way that is pro-business and pro-growth”.
Pragmatic solutions that make a difference are needed
On energy, Liz Truss wants “to make sure that the United Kingdom is never in this situation again”. This will require more pragmatism. The solutions proposed so far to increase supply: fracking, nuclear power, more North Sea oil and gas, and more offshore wind, will make no immediate difference to energy prices. Notably absent from government statements so far is a commitment to onshore wind or solar, the two technologies that can make a quick, clean difference to supply.
Even stranger is the reluctance to talk about using less energy in the first place. It really would be bizarre to spend around £150 billion subsidising bills for two years, but do nothing to ramp up energy efficiency. A decade ago, such programmes were beginning to make a big difference to the comfort of people’s homes. Then the government pulled the plug, the industry collapsed and we are living with the consequences. The government must invest in energy efficiency to increase our security, help cut the cost of living and tackle climate change. It should also reconsider whether it is right to put the cost of government action on taxpayers, rather than on the oil and gas companies which are enjoying a £170 billion windfall, courtesy of Vladimir Putin.
A longer term test will be whether the new administration understands that net zero and the restoration of nature are essential to building a strong, resilient economy, not a distraction from more important things.
It’s economic disarmament not to prioritise the green economy
During the leadership campaign, the new international trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch, described net zero as “unilateral economic disarmament”. In fact, governments representing 91 per cent of the world economy have now committed to net zero. As previous trade secretaries, Liz Truss and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, recognised, however fitfully, it would be unilateral economic disarmament to ignore the potential of green trade. In the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “those who fail to bet on the green economy will be living in a grey future”.
The new environment secretary is Ranil Jayawardena. An effective trade minister, his first tweet in his new job gave the impression that he had been appointed to MAFF, but he will find it hard to deliver his priorities: food security, water quality and economic growth, without intensifying the reform of farming policy. There is certainly no long term food security with a degraded environment, and improving water quality requires strong regulation and radical changes to farming practices. The promise of Brexit was a better environment outside the EU than within it. I am sure the new secretary of state will want to fulfil that promise.
The weeks ahead will be crucial for consumers, the economy and prospects of serious action on climate and nature. It is natural to be a little gloomy, given the quality of the debate in the leadership contest. But one thing gives me hope: Boris Johnson’s conversion to climate seriousness after he was briefed on the science by Sir Patrick Vallance. Much of the debate in recent weeks on climate, nature and farming has been extraordinarily trivial. But the challenges the planet faces really are serious: ask anyone whose memory stretches back to the summer heatwave, or ask anyone in Pakistan now. I hope that, even with their incredibly busy diaries, ministers will find time to hear similar briefings.