In contrast to previous leadership elections, and, indeed, even general elections, net-zero and decarbonisation are hardly featuring in this Conservative Party leadership contest. In fact, if you were to have noticed anything on net-zero, it would be more likely that you have picked up on the scepticism from leadership potentials towards the Government’s 2050 net-zero pledge. One candidate, Kemi Badenoch, has gone so far as to pledge to abandon the 2050 net-zero target should she win the contest.
Alarm bells have been ringing amongst supporters of the Conservatives’ net-zero ambitions and the “Vote blue, go green” mantra. Chris Skidmore MP, Chair of the Conservative Net Zero Support Group, warned last week that the party has “two weeks to save net-zero”. COP26 President, Alok Sharma MP, has threatened to resign from Government should the 2050 goal be abandoned (although it should be noted that he will cease to be COP President in November anyhow). And the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) have mobilised, calling on the leadership candidates to commit to both the 2050 net-zero goal and “halting the decline of nature by 2030”.
And yet, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Penny Mordaunt, and Tom Tugendhat have all signed up to the CEN pledge. All of these candidates have in some way spoken about their support for decarbonisation and the need to stop global warming. Kemi Badenoch alone is the only remaining candidate committed to scrapping the 2050 target (Suella Braverman was also committed to abolishing the 2050 target).
Whilst we are not seeing a shift away from environmentalism within the Conservative Party, contrary to what some may say and think, what we are seeing is a change in priorities and focus. Net-zero is no longer a goal in its own right – no longer does the 2050 target supersede all else.
Kemi Badenoch, Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt have all committed to abolishing or suspending “green levies” on energy bills. Liz Truss has said she would lift the ban on fracking. Mordaunt has promised to repeal the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars and to introduce an immediate 50% cut in fuel duty. All of the candidates have pledged to look again at HOW net-zero is delivered and achieved.
And this mood is largely reflective of the electorate the contenders are trying to speak to. Cavendish Advocacy’s recent polling showed that only a third of Conservative MPs indicated they would make Net Zero a campaign issue on the doorsteps, compared with 84% of Labour MPs. MPs are all to aware that day-to-day issues are trumping net-zero ambitions for voters. That is not to say that the general public no longer back the 2050 goal, they do, it is the nuance that it is now less important than other issues, which MPs are reflecting on.
Regardless of who wins the Conservative leadership election, the 2050 net-zero goal looks likely to stay. However, we can expect further scrutiny of the policies, strategies and plans for how to deliver the pledge. Ministers, civil servants and MPs will look again at targets and dates already set and are likely to be much more open to listening to both business and voters when it comes to how net-zero is delivered. For the organisations and companies who will be most impacted by net-zero, there is an opportunity to re-open and re-new dialogue with Government, and for Government and the Conservative Party there is a real opportunity to achieve net-zero in a way which is not only good for the environment, but good for the economy and for the country as a whole.