During the leadership campaign, new PM Liz Truss promised to “double down” on the UK’s commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
But as summer temperatures soared, there was little talk of greater ambition from the Tory contenders, and plenty about how environmental policies might be watered down or changed.
In its latest progress report on net zero the government’s advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), said that “tangible progress is lagging the policy ambition”.
So is the new Truss government going to close the “policy gaps” identified by the CCC, or widen them?
The two key cabinet positions for net zero are now held by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the business secretary, who will oversee the all-important energy sector, and Ranil Jayawardena, the environment secretary.
Don’t expect the new business secretary to be making many friends within the environmental lobby, or the “green blob” as he has called them.
Mr Rees-Mogg has spoken in the past of extracting “every last drop” of North Sea oil, and licenses could be approved rapidly for new oil and gas exploration. That’s a complete no-no for almost all climate scientists, who say there can be no more fossil fuel projects if we are going to retain any hope of keeping global temperature rises under 1.5 degrees. Climate scientists say missing that target would accelerate the risks of climate change like extreme weather.
“It doesn’t have a knock on effect on net zero.” Mr Rees Mogg said when talking about new North Sea oil and gas on his podcast earlier this year.
“It’s more environmentally friendly to use gas that you’ve got at hand than to import liquefied gas from the rest of the world.”
A small group of Conservatives have also been demanding that the new PM take a fresh look at fracking and Ms Truss has given them some encouragement.
On the campaign trail she said that what she called the “effective ban” on fracking would be lifted but it would only take place where local communities supported it (which may well stop it happening).
Mr Rees-Mogg has called shale gas “very clean” and said that the threat of drilling causing earthquakes was overstated with “some the equivalent of a bus passing by your house.”
The cold, hard capitalist truth is that new renewables are currently a much cheaper source of new power generation than any of the fossil fuel or nuclear alternatives. So shifting towards wind and solar makes not just environmental, but economic sense, while at the same time giving us more energy security.
Britain is a world leader in offshore wind and in the next few years the building of ever larger wind-farms – mainly in the North Sea – looks set to continue. Huge projects are already under way and will come on stream in the next couple of years.
There’s unlikely to be shift in policy towards two Tory renewable bugbears with comparable price tags – onshore wind and solar.
Ms Truss has already said she wants new solar panels to be limited to the roofs of buildings and not put on agricultural land, and her environment minister appears to have even stronger views.
“I don’t think there’s any need for solar power given the huge potential for wind,” Ranil Jayawardena said in a social media video posted in November 2021.
“If you feel strongly about protecting our countryside from solar farms write to your local councillor and give them the support they need to take action quickly to protect our countryside from them.”
Wind farms on land have a much shorter development timeline, but new projects have effectively been halted since 2014 when local communities were given greater powers to object. Despite the attraction of quicker cheap energy, neither Ms Truss, Mr Rees-Mogg or Mr Jayawardena have shown any enthusiasm for making onshore any easier.
On one of his podcasts, Mr Rees-Mogg talks about “hairshirt greenery”, the idea that environmental problems can be addressed by limiting our consumption of resources.
“If you are too aggressive, too “hairshirty” people won’t vote for it.” he says.
“So you’ve got to go with the grain of public opinion with what people are willing to accept. And that means raising living standards through efficient use of technology”.
In that light, latest polling on renewables conducted by Mr Rees-Mogg’s new department makes interesting reading. It shows that 7% of people would be unhappy (compared to 54% who would be happy) about a solar farm being built in their local area and 12% unhappy (with 43% happy) about an on-shore wind-farm.