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Climate backlash

Climate backlash

The government needs to make it clear to the public that net zero remains a priority, despite high gas prices and calls to delay from the backbench.

The UK’s Conservative party used to be split on Europe. Now it’s split on climate. On one side a sizeable caucus wants the government to see through its plans to hit net zero nationally by 2050. On the other an influential group of backbenchers says net zero policies aren’t affordable. Some conservatives (including non-Tories) have gone further, calling for a referendum on the net zero strategy. The government is trying to keep them all happy – pushing ahead with net zero while appeasing the critics. That’s a dangerous game. 

  • The net zero critics are experienced operators… There are thought to be just 19 backbench MPs in the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, including four from the 2019 intake. But they’re part of a powerful network. Half the NZSG members followed Steve Baker from the Eurosceptic European Research Group that helped force through Brexit. Several others are members of the Covid Recovery Group that opposed England’s second lockdown. Two of its key members, Baker and Lord Peter Lilley, have links to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, considered as a mainstay of UK climate scepticism. 

  • …and they’re on manoeuvres. The UK’s temporary ban on fracking is in the NZSG’s crosshairs this week. “We don’t sign up to costly virtue signalling like the decision to forbid onshore shale gas,” Lord Lilley says. It’s a view that seems to be gaining support. A letter organised by the NZSG and signed by 30 MPs and peers was sent to Boris Johnson on Sunday urging him to reverse the 2019 fracking moratorium and “let a British energy renaissance begin”.
  • Tory pretenders are vying for power. Johnson’s critics reckon he’ll dump climate pledges if it buys him support from the right of his party. His chancellor Rishi Sunak, with his feet in the Treasury but his eyes on Number 10, has meanwhile been hedging: last week he reportedly requested that licenses for six new oil and gas fields in the North Sea be fast-tracked. 
  • The energy crisis isn’t over. In fact it’s only intensifying, which puts more pressure on Alok Sharma and his Cop presidency team to make the case that high gas prices and the net zero agenda aren’t connected.  

If the NZSG succeeds in slowing action on net zero, it would set a precedent for other countries to fudge commitments ahead of Cop27 in November. That would be damaging. As the climatologist Michael E. Mann has said, climate delay is the new denial. 

But is the government really ready to roll back climate progress so soon after Glasgow? Action on net zero still has significant support, not least among… 

  • The public. Most people think cutting reliance on gas by boosting renewables and insulation is the best way to tackle rising energy bills, according to a recent poll by the Energy Climate and Intelligence Unit. Only 8 per cent favour fracking. On social media, mentions of a “net zero referendum” have been minimal since Cop, according to research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
  • The party. The NZSG is dwarfed by a much larger Tory group that calls itself the Conservative Environment Network, made up of 123 MPs and 15 peers who support the green agenda. Many of its members are pushing for more ambition on net zero, not less. Sam Hall, director of the CEN, picks out insulation as “an area where the government could be doing more”.
  • The economically rational. The Office for Budget Responsibility puts the cost of getting to net zero by 2050 at 21 per cent of GDP. But not bothering could take public debt to 289 per cent of GDP by the end of the century, up from 96 per cent last year. “The NZSG are not taken seriously in the Treasury,” says Ed Matthews of E3G. “What they are advocating for will damage the UK economy, and Sunak knows that.” 

All of which underscores the need to tackle the implications of high gas prices head on. “The government needs to engage with the public about the costs and benefits of its net zero strategy,” says the Institute for Government. The recent announcement of annual renewable energy auctions is a decent start. A net zero tax strategy, as suggested by the Committee on Climate Change, would also be sound. And if Johnson is serious about climate action he should transform the team that delivered at Cop into a standing unit in the Cabinet Office. The forces of inactivism are seizing the moment. Johnson should too. 


Tomorrow’s problem
Europe’s biggest banks have provided £24bn in financing to oil and gas companies since last April even though most of them signed up to the UN’s Net Zero Banking Alliance. Data gathered by Share Action found that HSBC, Barclays, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank were the most generous lenders to companies that are expanding oil and gas production, collectively providing £14bn. Several banks have responded to the report by saying that they interpret the IEA’s advice on halting the exploration of fossil fuels as effective from 2022. Share Action is calling on banks signed up to the 2050 net zero target to start asking clients to provide transition plans. Currently just two, NatWest and Danske Bank, are known to be taking that step.


Thin ice
There’s even less water in the world’s remaining glaciers than experts thought. A satellite survey of 250,000 glaciers – 98 per cent of the world’s total – found there was 11 per cent less glacier water globally than in previous estimates and up to 23 per cent less in the Andes. That’s a big problem because 1.9 billion people, or 22 per cent of all humanity, depend on glaciers for fresh water. Melting naturally accelerates as the climate warms: the less glacial ice is left, the quicker the rest goes. And as glaciers shrink, melting ice sheets are taking over as the main cause of rising sea levels. Those in Greenland and West Antarctica contain enough to raise the oceans by 13 metres.


Paved paradise
Lawmakers in Colorado have highlighted a flaw in President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill: more asphalt isn’t good for the planet. Local governments in the state are now required to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions expected from future road projects and factor in induced traffic. If they break their emissions budget, they have to offset the excess with clean transport projects. The hope is that planners will think more carefully about where they slap the next bit of concrete. Few states have yet to follow suit, but it seems like America’s love of the open road is waning slightly: in Oregon, Virginia and California, recent planned highway expansions have been scrapped because of pressure from environmental groups and concerns about cost.

engagement and activism

Climate consultants
Consultancy firms are showing increased willingness to dump clients who don’t make an effort to be more sustainable. Christoph Schweizer, the new head of Boston Consulting Group, tells the FT he wants to hire climate activists as advisors and tighten the firm’s policy on which emitters it will work with. Last month, Richard Edelman responded to accusations that his firm was helping clients spread climate misinformation by saying that Edelman will “part company” with certain customers if they cannot “come to an understanding” about climate commitments. Last year, a letter from more than 1,100 McKinsey employees criticized the company’s “inaction on client’s emissions”. All this green talk prompts a question: is this about fending off criticism or retaining climate-conscious talent?

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

Ellen Halliday

Graphic by Katie Riley. Edited by Giles Whittell.

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