Ealing Friends of the Earth

Environmental Credentials of Conservative Party Leadership Contenders

Introduction

Conservative Party MPs have given their party members a choice between two candidates for the country’s next prime minister. The party’s approximately 160,000 members have to choose between former finance minister Rishi Sunak and former foreign minister Liz Truss.

Anyone who is concerned about the environment and is also a member of the Conservative Party (and therefore able to vote in the choice of PM), will want to look at both candidates’ environmental credentials very carefully. For example, promised tax cuts may be paid for with reduced environmental protection. We have attempted to summarise the environmental record and promises of each candidate below, which we hope will be of interest whether or not you have a vote.

Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have poor climate records. Liz Truss has links to secretively funded climate sceptic groups while Rishi Sunak opposed climate spending as finance minister. However this could change in power, when faced by scientific and public pressure, backed by the recent high court ruling that the government’s net zero strategy was inadequate (giving ministers until March 2023 to make the numbers add up), and by the ever growing evidence such as this July’s heatwave. Unfortunately both candidates will also face pressure from climate-deniers within the Conservative party, like the self-styled ‘net zero scrutiny group’. Below we provide some detail about the candidates’ records and the promises they’ve made.

Their Records

Liz Truss’s record

  • In terms of voting record, Ms Truss has generally voted against measures to fight climate change.
  • In 2012, voiced support for not just a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport but also a fourth.
  • As environment minister in 2014, cut subsidies for solar farms calling them a “blight on the landscape”.
  • In 2018, criticised her own government’s attempts to control air pollution from wood-burning stoves, and backed fracking for gas, dismissing opposition as “nimby”.
  • While she was Trade Secretary, Ms Truss was accused of dropping Paris climate change agreements from the UK-Austalian trade deal.
  • She voted not to require ministers to have “due regard” of the net zero 2050 target when taking actions like setting up agricultural subsidy schemes, and voted not to require a “climate and nature emergency impact statement” as part of a proposal for financial assistance (UK Internal Market Bill, September 2020).
  • Said to be interested in conserving nature and has boasted of bringing back beavers to the UK as environment secretary.
  • When Environment Secretary, voted against EU ban on neonicotinoids despite clear evidence that they damage bees; has since supported relaxation of the ban and use of these pesticides by sugar beet farmers.

Rishi Sunak’s record

  • In terms of his voting record, Mr Sunak has almost always voted against measures to prevent climate change.
  • In February 2020, he voted not to call on the Government to make a plan to eliminate the majority of transport emissions by 2030.
  • He voted not to reduce the permitted carbon dioxide emission rate of new homes (Housing and Planning Bill, May 2016).
  • Mr Sunak voted against setting a decarbonisation target in the UK (Energy Bill, March 2016), and he voted to apply the “climate change levy” to electricity generated from renewable sources, thus imposing extra costs on renewables.
  • In his 2021 Budget, he halved air passenger duty, extended the freeze on fuel duty, and did not announce funding for improved home insulation.
  • In his Spring statement in March 2022, he also announced a reduction in fuel duty. However, he also announced a reduction in VAT on installing insulation, solar panels and heat pumps in homes.
  • Under pressure from the Labour Party, Sunak announced a £5bn windfall tax on oil and gas companies, but has not removed oil and gas companies’ broader tax advantages despite the urging of the Climate Change Committee.

Their Promises

Liz Truss’s promises

  • Committed to maintaining the government’s legally binding goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, but has said she would suspend the green energy levy, which is currently used to fund energy-efficiency installation schemes for poorer areas.
  • Would review ban on fracking, i.e. to allow it. Committed to supporting gas as a transition fuel
  • Said she wanted aid spending to be prioritised for women and girls rather than climate change.
  • Committed to develop a stronger British biodiversity target and move away from the EU’s habitat directive. Promised to review the UK’s list of protected species and lead a delegation to the biodiversity Cop in Montreal.
  • Despite her record, she has the support of the party’s most climate-aware minister Zac Goldsmith. When Johnson resigned, the international environment minister tweeted that most of the leadership candidates “couldn’t give a s*** about climate and nature” but has gone on to back Truss as “the obvious choice”.
  • Nuclear Power: Liz Truss told reporters in response to a question in the Channel 4 leadership debate: “We also need to build more nuclear power plants, and we also need to build more small modular reactors. It will also add new jobs,”

Rishi Sunak’s promises

  • Committed to the net zero 2050 target.
  • Would set a new legal target for the UK to be energy independent by 2045 at the latest. Has assured the Tories’ green wing he would protect the environment.
  • Would maintain a ban on building any new onshore wind farms. But would start a ‘massive expansion’ of offshore wind.
  • Looking at launching a new energy efficiency scheme to tackle the cost of living, focusing on cheaper measures such as heating controls and cavity wall insulation.
  • Re-establish a separate Department of Energy and create a new Energy Security Committee tasked with reforming the market to cut future bills
  • Nuclear Power: Sunak is said to have been resisting Johnson’s plans for a big expansion of nuclear power, with Treasury officials concerned that the plans do not offer good enough value for money, and pushing for alternative methods to divest from oil and gas imports. Nevertheless Sunak seems broadly in favour of more nuclear.

The Choice?

It’s difficult to say who would be the best (or least worst) candidate in terms of environmental policy, based on what we have been able to learn and given that we don’t really know what they would do in practice.

In terms of harm, the apparent enthusiasm of all the candidates for more nuclear power is astonishing given the spiralling costs and far better alternatives*. Just possibly, Rishi Sunak is the more cautious in this regard.

Friends of the Earth UK has provided a list of the environmental priorities that need to be addressed by the Conservative Party’s next leader.

* The latest UK offshore wind has a strike price of £37.35 per megawatt-hour (a new low), while the strike price of the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant being built has gone up from £89.50 to £106.12 per megawatt-hour. Nuclear is touted as a reliable back-up for renewables, but is unsuited as back-up as reactors cannot be swiftly turned on or off and need to be run continuously to achieve even the high strike price agreed. Nuclear is also hardly reliable: around half of France’s atomic fleet was taken offline in June 2022 for a variety of problems and by July only 46% were working as they couldn’t cope with the heatwave. Japan currently has only 10 of it’s 54 reactors working; almost all were switched off after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and for over a decade only a handful and sometimes none at all have been operational.

Sources

  • “In Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, UK’s two PM contenders have poor climate records” – Climate Home News
  • “New Tory leader: What are Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, and Penny Mordaunt’s views on climate change?” – The Scotsman
  • “Where Rishi Sunak And Liz Truss Stand On Major Policy Areas” – Politics Home
  • “Truss v Sunak: how do Tory PM contenders differ on policy?” – The Guardian
  • “most of the likely contenders are people who, on the whole, couldn’t give a shit about climate and nature” – Conservative MP and environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith on Twitter
  • “Truss urged to build more nuclear power plants to get rid of dependence on Russian gas” Liz Truss called on London to build more nuclear power plants to reduce the dependence of the country’s economy on Russian gas.247 News Agency
  • “SMRs” Rishi Sunak, made clear that he thought nuclear facilities should play a more prominent role in the UK’s future energy policy.Electricity Info
  • “Hinkley nuclear power station on track for 2026 opening” Hinkley C’s strike price has now reached £106/MWh. – BBC News
  • “UPDATE: OWIC hails record offshore CfD strike prices” UK Offshore Wind falls to £37.35/MWh – Renews Biz