The government’s climate agenda is under threat as Boris Johnson’s popularity slumps, according to green campaigners who work closely with the Conservative party.
As the prime minister faces further lockdown party allegations, and angry Conservative MPs seek answers over energy price rises and the cost of living crisis, analysts fear the government’s commitment to net zero is facing its most severe test yet.
Tom Burke, a co-founder of the E3G green thinktank and a veteran government adviser, said: “Johnson has been the standard bearer for net zero, and lots of people were happy about that. There is now a sustained assault from the right on net zero. They see the prime minister’s political weakness, and they see net zero as a flank on which to attack him.”
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is meeting backbench Tory MPs this week to calm fears that the squeeze on incomes caused by rising inflation and soaring gas prices will turn away voters, particularly in “red wall” seats in the north of England. He is under pressure from vocal quarters to abandon green measures such as carbon levies, which play a small role in energy bills.
Although experts have criticised the government’s net zero plans as falling woefully short on ambition and funding, Johnson is still seen as more engaged with the climate crisis than any of his Tory rivals and has made net zero a personal crusade, with a 10-point plan to “build back greener”, published after the first Covid lockdown.
He is influenced by close advisers and allies including his wife, Carrie Johnson, who works for a conservation charity, and his father, Stanley, a prominent “green Tory”, as well as friends such as Zac Goldsmith, the former owner of the Ecologist magazine, whom Johnson appointed as a minister in the Lords.
Chris Venables, the head of politics at the Green Alliance thinktank, said: “There is definite jeopardy in Boris Johnson’s weakness, as he has been the champion. But the forces of good are now rallying behind the green agenda. It does help that the facts are on our side.”
Johnson’s main rivals in the cabinet – Sunak and the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who are both seen as leadership contenders – have been particularly notable in distancing themselves from net zero efforts. Megan Randles, a political campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “This year there have been more missed opportunities than bold measures by Sunak and Truss. Sunak didn’t mention the climate once in his party conference speech; his spending review failed to kickstart a green recovery, and he is reported to have curbed Johnson’s climate ambitions and hindered Cop26. Truss actively undermined climate action in the Australia trade deal.”
On the Tory backbenches, a small but vocal group – the “net zero scrutiny group” – of about 20 MPs has been courting media attention by blaming gas prices on green measures that they say should be scrapped. Analysts and experts have pointed out that the UK’s overreliance on fossil fuels carries most of the blame, and that insulating homes and investing in green energy at home would alleviate the problem.
Bob Ward, the policy director at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at the London School of Economics, warned of attempts to undermine public support for climate action. “The growing crisis around energy prices threatens to delay implementation of the policies necessary to make the net zero target credible,” he said. “There is a small but noisy group of Conservative MPs, whose voices are being amplified by the usual suspects in parts of the media, who are attempting to mislead the public about the roots of the current crisis, blaming green energy policies rather than the true cause: wholesale prices of natural gas.”
Alok Sharma, the cabinet minister who oversaw Cop26, also aimed a coded warning at his party in an interview with the Guardian late last year. He said delivering on the UK’s net zero target must be a “focus across the whole of the UK government” or the achievements of the Cop26 climate summit would be “just a bunch of meaningless promises”.
Chris Skidmore, a former energy minister, is also rallying Tory backbenchers to support net zero under the banner of the “net zero support group”.
Shaun Spiers, the executive director of Green Alliance, noted: “Fortunately, a few eccentrics aside, the Conservative party is committed to climate action. Business-friendly Tories are pushing for more ambition, while MPs across the country are demanding and celebrating green investment in their constituencies. Net zero and nature are increasingly at the heart of the party, and Boris Johnson can take some credit for that.”
Any change of direction to reduce emphasis on tackling the climate crisis could also play badly with voters, who back climate action, argue campaigners.
Dave Timms, the head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth, said: “Deep concern about the climate crisis now reaches every part of British society, so the public mandate for the radical action to slash UK emissions is there. The words on every minister’s lips should be delivery, delivery, delivery.”