The Prime Minister made his annual Party Conference speech this week — what does it mean for the climate?

On Wednesday, Rishi Sunak made his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester. Culture wars, benefits, immigration and A-levels were among some of the topics mentioned, although the headline was the cancellation of the northern leg of HS2. 

Speaking of being bold, radical, and stating that “It is time for a change”, perhaps the Prime Minister has forgotten which party has been in power for the past 13 years?

Sunak’s language envisions activism, in stark contrast with the actual content of the speech which contained cutbacks and revisions rather than forward thinking.

To absolutely no-one’s surprise, the cancellation of the Manchester leg of HS2 was announced, making up one of the central parts of the speech. It’s difficult to gauge what the environmental costs of this are, but with construction having already started on a project that will never materialise, we can say for certain that HS2 is not the most energy-efficient of proposals.

The greater environmental cost will be the car journeys that continue to go ahead which otherwise would not have if there were a reliable, affordable and high-speed alternative.

Sunak did announce that “every single penny” of the apparent £36 billion now available after scrapping the northern leg of HS2 will be spent on other transport projects in the Midlands and the North, under the ‘Network North’ plan.

This included improvements to several railways throughout the north including a new station in Bradford and a number of electrified lines across Manchester, Sheffield and Hull. 

On top of this, the PM said that money will also be used on a number of roads and motorways. This appears to go in tandem with his U-turn on green targets — such as the extension of deadlines on the selling of new petrol and diesel cars — as a demonstration of his intention to keep Britain driving.

Sadly, that’s just about all Sunak offered on environmental issues. The only other slither the U.K. public were offered was an incremental raise in the minimum age of smoking. It’s good to see that the Conservatives take tough evidence-based action. The science shows that smoking is extremely deleterious to health. Equally, the science shows that the respiratory problems caused by polluting cars are damaging to health and disproportionately affect the most deprived individuals, who are often children. 

On that logic, particularly given that the slogan of the week for the Tory party is ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future’, Sunak must surely support the expansion of Ultra-Low Emissions Zones… right? 

If we take the cigarette policy in isolation, it will obviously improve public health, but it will also decrease litter from discarded cigarette butts. This, alongside his other vague policy ideas on disposable vapes, will reduce negative effects on the environment.

Sunak often spoke with the words of a protestor, trying to conjure up support among a nation seemingly turning away from him. Despite his best efforts to claw back some electoral credibility, his decision to cancel HS2 has angered many northern voters and looks set to lead the country deeper into the climate crisis with a sheer lack of action.