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Former Energy Minister Worries UK Could Act "Against" Climate Commitments

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke at COP28 in Dubai (Alamy)

6 min read

Conservative MP and former energy minister Chris Skidmore has said he will be turning his attention to “one thing” in 2024: campaigning for net zero to be in every party’s manifesto commitments “regardless of what the government wants to do”.

Skidmore signed net zero into law in 2019 as energy minister under former prime minister Theresa May, and is now on the shortlist of candidates to chair the independent Climate Change Committee. 

He previously chaired the Independent Net Zero Review into the delivery of the UK’s commitment to net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. A few weeks ago, he published the report as a book called Mission Zero.

Currently the MP for Kingswood in Gloucestershire, Skidmore will not be running in the next general election as his constituency is set to be abolished by the new boundary review. 

Having attended the COP28 climate summit in Dubai earlier this month, he told PoliticsHome that it was now on the UK government and other governments around the world to set out more detail on how they achieve various promises made and deliver net zero. 

“You've got to use every moment, and now I need to see what is next in my life,” Skidmore said.

“And I thought this is a moment where I just want to focus on one thing, which is now net zero and the energy transition. You have a fantastic opportunity as a member of parliament to have a very broad range of subjects that you have to cover in your role as a legislator, but there comes a point where I think you choose your own priorities.

“I want to spend the next 20 years trying to deliver on net zero, having signed it into law, so I will be making sure that all political parties come out and set out their details.”

He said he was also keen for this on a regional level as well as a national one, stating that the May local and mayoral elections in the UK will be “really important” as regional leaders can make a “huge difference” in terms of their power over local infrastructure and industry.

Skidmore was clearly concerned that with a general election on the horizon in 2024, environmental issues may slip down the political priority list.

Rishi Sunak set out his five priorities and obviously you're then judged on those priorities and the political conversation, both in Westminster amongst politicians and in the media, becomes relentlessly focused on those particular issues,” he said.

“So we've seen obviously this myopic focus on immigration, the emergency legislation that I didn't vote for – I abstained – dominating Westminster politics and will continue now to dominate into the new year.”

Without the pressure of running for election again, Skidmore will instead turn his attention to building cross-party alliances, as he believes achieving net zero is “more important than politics”.

“I'm not trying to shut down democratic debate, we have different ideas about the details how we could deliver clean, green, affordable energy for the future, but let's also restore that consensus that used to be in place that this is too important, and that climate change is going to happen regardless of who is in government,” he said.

“So let's get back to them that sort of vision that we all had when we signed the Climate Change Act into law back in 2008.”

Skidmore openly criticised the UK government for its decision in September to delay some net zero commitments, including pushing back a ban on the sale of cars with combustion engines from 2030 to 2035.

“The challenge is that we're in an electoral cycle where politicians often want to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term,” Skidmore said.

“I will campaign for Net Zero still to be in every party's manifesto commitments. I personally sort of feel that it is an area of focus that would be rewarded by voters; there was no political reward from the Prime Minister’s speech on net zero, the polls went backwards and it's quite clear that was a moment when the wider gap opened up between Labour and Conservatives.

“Net zero shouldn't be framed as a cost burden... This is an opportunity for growth, jobs for the UK to establish itself firmly in the future… One that we can't row back from, regardless of what the government wants to do.”

Chris Skidmore
Chris Skidmore was Minister for Energy and Clean Growth in 2019 (Alamy)

While Skidmore recognised COP28 had secured some new pledges between countries, including a promise to “transition away” from fossil fuels, he was concerned that the language was “weak” and did not impose any duty on nations to comply. 

“It's the weakest diplomatic language possible in a text,” he said.

“I can call upon any country to commit to the phasing out of fossil fuels, it doesn't mean they're necessarily going to agree to that. So the challenge is now there are a number of mechanisms in the text that really need to be followed through very quickly.”

COP28 saw the first global stocktake, which looked at how countries can accelerate action to meet the goals of the landmark Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, but Skidmore believed the stocktake lacked detail on how change can actually be delivered and how countries would be held accountable.

“I personally feel that we are sort of finessing the negotiated text at the expense of real actions, real time delivery,” he said.

He argued that while COP summits were helpful for getting the world together to discuss climate ambitions, binding commitments between countries that can be made outside of COP might be “more powerful from a diplomatic and strategic perspective”.

The former energy minister also said that the decisions taken at COP28 demonstrated the need for an “end date” for world usage of fossil fuels, and said the government’s new Offshore Petroleum Gas Bill was “totally against the sentiment and direction of the global stocktake agreement that was agreed at COP28”. If passed, the Bill initiates an annual process inviting applications for new offshore oil and gas production licences in the North Sea. 

Describing this as “another historic mistake and a grave error” by the UK government, Skidmore said that despite commitments made at COP, the UK has been “unable to demonstrate climate leadership as it has in the past”.

“Their commitment to new oil and gas fields is outside the 1.5 degree pathway and everyone knows this and there's no hiding from that fact,” he said.

“When I went to Dubai everyone recognised that the commitments that this UK government has made on oil and gas mean that they cannot demonstrate future leadership internationally until we return back to where we were, which was a moratorium on new oil and gas licences.”

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