A brief history of Conservative governments’ approach to climate change.
On Monday June 12, with temperatures reaching 30℃ the night prior, the National Grid turned to coal to meet electricity demands caused by an increase in the use of air conditioning. Ending a 46 day run without coal, and ironic as the situation may seem, commentators, such as Greenpeace UK’s political campaigner Ami McCarthy, rightly called into question the efficiency of the UK energy grid, and the government’s role in ensuring it.
McCarthy is not the first to criticise the government with regards to their handling of the climate crisis. Indeed, subsequent Conservative governments have faced numerous critiques of their approach to environmental protection, mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Yet, with the election of David Cameron as Prime Minister in 2010 the Conservative party remains the UK’s best placed entity to tackle climate change, and its approach thus far deserves to be revisited.
Thirteen years of Conservative rule: from 2010 to 2023
Over the past 13 years, Conservative governments’ approach to climate change have demonstrated broad ambivalence on the issue. Beginning under Cameron’s leadership during the 2010 election ramp-up, subsequent Conservative prime ministers have repeatedly flirted between endorsing and condemning environmental policies.
For the most part, the early 2010s demonstrated a favourable step towards the promotion and adoption of climate-conscious policies.
As Conservative leader, and member of the opposition, followed by his premiership as part of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government, environmental rhetoric proved a central feature of Cameron’s political stance. In a speech delivered in May 2010 at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), just days after his inauguration, the then-PM unfolded his aspiration for the coalition to be the greenest government ever, centred around a “green economy”, “climate change agenda” and “energy security”.
To some extent, the coalition did live up to its promises.
In hindsight, it is easy to point out its many shortfalls, primarily linked to tensions surrounding the need to actually invest in environmental solutions, and the desire to cut spending as part of the government’s five-year austerity policy. A major example was the 2011 Green Deal, led by Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrats), which, while successfully pushed through, still effectively failed to decarbonise housing due to its ineffective and overly complex workings.
The coalition’s environmental efforts have mostly been attributed to the Liberal Democrat presence.
Following the 2015 Conservative victory, a step away from the soft green palette that had characterised the Conservative-Liberal government took place. Highlighted in Cameron’s decisions to abandon previous “green crap” policies, this resulted broadly in a number of environmental u-turns: retraction on the fracking ban; ending wind and solar subsidies; axing the zero-carbon home plans, to state but a few.
While the promise to phase out the use of coal in energy production did remain, the second Cameron government demonstrated a clear step away from climate-conscious policies which persisted into the Brexit referendum, and into the early days of Theresa May’s government.
Brexit and COVID-19
Conservative’s failure to secure an overall majority during the 2017 election resulted in the return to climate change and environmental issues, in an effort to increase women and younger voters’ support.
Milestones were also reached in the energy sector, with substantial emissions reductions (albeit thanks to previous governments). Renewable’s prevalence increased in the UK’s energy mix allowing for the National Grid’s first ever coal-free day.
In September 2017 the UK government awarded contracts worth £176 million to 11 low-carbon electricity schemes. While these projects were to account for just 3% of the UK’s electricity demand, they marked a turning point for offshore wind as record low prices (£57.50 per megawatt hour) brought the cost below that of new gas, according to government projections.
Most notably, there was the increased focus on Net Zero, which would become a central aspect of Conservative’s approach to environmental reforms following May’s resignation.
The 2019 Johnson government perhaps best demonstrates Conservative ambivalence towards the environmental question. Although, it is worth taking into account that Brexit (which formed the core of Johnson’s electoral campaign), and the COVID-19 pandemic occupied much of the Johnson cabinet’s focus.
Following the securing of Brexit, a return to environmental rhetoric and agreements did occur, especially in the run-up to COP26 (hosted in Glasgow). This included the inclusion of climate-compatible measures in economic recovery policies like the “build back greener” campaign, the Ten Point Plan, which presented the idea of a green industrial revolution, and a number of emissions reductions goals such as the approval of the 6th Carbon Budget.
Rhetoric was also met with a financial backing of £12 billion, making the Ten Point Plan a welcomed first step by experts, though many were quick to point out the need to go beyond current proposed strategies. Dr Hugh Hunt of the Centre for Climate Repair, for example, aptly described the Ten Point Plan as a “a good start but a drop in the ocean”.
However, considering Johnson’s history of climate-sceptic comments, and infamous decision to not attend the Channel 4 climate debate, renewed Conservative environmental focus can most likely be attributed to high public concern over the climate crisis, demonstrating a continued attempt on the part of Conservatives to secure their electorate.
The Ukraine War
The outbreak of the war in Ukraine back in February 2022 resulted in a shift in the Conservative approach to tackling the climate crisis. This was characterised by a weakening commitment to climate policy in favour of energy security, with ‘pragmatic’ approaches being taken regarding a return to domestic hydrocarbons, increased oil and gas production and renewed consideration on fracking.
The latter days of the Johnson government did see a scale up in offshore wind and plans to increase nuclear power capacity (as with the Sizewell C plant). However, following governments have, thus far, showcased reduced commitments towards concrete climate action. This is despite significant gaps existing between Conservative climate commitments and the required measures, as reported by the Climate Change Committee to Parliament in June 2022.
Truss’ short stint in government (49 days), makes it difficult to evaluate any potential long term impact. Like many of her predecessors, commitment to climate action appeared mixed. Most notable however, was the announcement of the Skidmore review, which highlighted the need for a bolder approach to Net Zero on the government’s part.
Zooming in: The Sunak government
In light of this, the Sunak government demonstrates continued distancing from environmentally-conscious governance, with current efforts to reduce energy demands (most notably in the housing system) proving ineffective due to the overly complex processes.
Additionally, Sunak’s track record with regards to climate change has also proved relatively dismal. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he announced the end to a $1.7 billion scheme aimed at insulating UK homes, and halved taxes on domestic UK flights.
Currently, energy security, couched in the context of the war in Ukraine, continues to offset climate commitments, with a clear return to fossil fuels. Most recently, Sunak’s ‘Green Day’ announcement demonstrates renewed commitment to the oil and gas sector, specifically as part of the Powering Up Britain plan and Energy Security Plan — the latter maintaining its objectives of “maximising” offshore oil and gas production within UK waters.
Considering the expectations for ‘Green Day’ to respond to the 2022 High Court Ruling (which judged current UK Net Zero Strategy unlawful and insufficient), the Sunak government’s decision to expand oil exploration paints a bleak picture.
Key takeaways and ramping up to 2024
Over the past 13 years, Conservatives have maintained an on-and-off relationship with climate and environmental policies. While the focus on climate was portrayed as a central policy during the Cameron-Clegg coalition, Cameron’s subsequent decision to cut the “green crap” seemed to suggest this initial affinity was more the result of the Liberal Democrats than Conservative commitment to the environment.
Following governments have continued to display an ambiguous relationship with environmental policies. In part as a result of unfolding globally significant events (such as with the case of the war in Ukraine), climate policies have been made to take a back seat, being deemed secondary to the issues at hand. Most recently, this has been well demonstrated by the Sunak government’s approach to establishing energy security through renewed oil and gas exploration, despite the environmental risk this would represent.
When environmental policies have been reinstated by Conservative governments, this has often been to serve a strategic purpose — as with the May and Johnson governments which attempted to respond to an identified rise in environmental concern across the UK population. Should the Sunak government feel that environmental concern will prove a significant factor dictating voters’ choice in the upcoming election, it is likely that increased focus on implementing climate policy will be witnessed.
However, the UK’s current economic and cost of living crisis is likely to dominate debates, especially with regards to food and energy prices. As such, should the situation persist, it is likely that focus will continue to be directed at rebuilding the economy and ensuring secure access to energy.
Nevertheless, continuing to invest in large scale oil and gas exploration for the sake of immediate energy security is, much like turning to coal to power air conditioning units during a heatwave, nothing short of a scorched earth policy.