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The Conservative Party must rediscover Thatcher’s pioneering climate leadership


3 min read

This year, conference meets with Britain having lost its status as a world leader in the battle against climate change, now relegated to an also-ran.

The Conservative Party has historically always held a proud record of climate leadership. We wrote the Climate Change Act and celebrated its introduction in 2008 under Gordon Brown’s Labour government. We committed to meet net-zero by 2050 and led much of the world to accept this target. In 2021 we hosted COP26 and challenged other countries with our tough targets for 2030 and 2035. Margaret Thatcher was right when she accepted that global warming fundamentally threatens our future and went to the UN to demand global action.

The government has failed to show that it is on track to reach net-zero by 2050

Against this remarkable history, it is shocking to find a Conservative government give planning permission for a new coal mine in Cumbria. Then, despite warnings from the International Energy Agency, the decision was made to explore and extract from new North Sea oil fields well into the 2030s when the world will be awash with oil. It has left us unable to lead developing countries in the transition to renewables. We seem unaware of propaganda by American oil and gas companies that suggest, for these countries, moving to gas from wood and coal is the climate friendly answer! 

Despite presenting reems of evidence to defend itself in the courts, the government has failed to show that it is on track to reach net-zero by 2050. Instead it cites past successes: George Osborne’s remarkably prescient support for the wind industry, the United Kingdom’s resultant leadership in offshore wind, and our success meeting the first three carbon budgets. Britain’s past climate achievements are unrivalled but, just as the rest of the world looks to us for leadership, progress has stalled. The United States has made huge strides under President Biden. There have been significant advances across the rest of Europe, a vast expansion of renewables in China, and commitments from Japan and South Korea, showing just how much the world has changed. 

It is in this new world, where net-zero is central to political planning and industrial and commercial change, that the UK will have to compete. This is no time to fall behind if we want investment, jobs, and contracts. Again, the government cites its success in getting inward investment but that too is based on past policies and earlier successes. 

Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement rowing back on net-zero commitments has caused consternation among investors. How on earth will they be able to trust the government’s intentions if commitments are put off in such a cavalier manner and not even announced to Parliament so they could be properly scrutinised. 

The PM’s pledge to avoid seven waste bins, taxes on meat, and forced car-sharing are, frankly, laughable. No one serious has ever suggested any of these things. They simply underline the party-political manoeuvring that the whole exercise suggests. It would be an odd judgement too if we cut inheritance tax while endangering the inheritance of our children and ourselves by failing to counter the existential threat of a fast-warming world.

The Conservative Party must return to its roots and recover the international leadership pioneered by Thatcher and carried through by successive leaders. Otherwise, a whole generation of natural Conservative voters will turn elsewhere to parties who are more clearly committed to protecting their future by leading the fight against climate change. 


Lord Deben, Conservative peer, former environment secretary and former chair of the independent Climate Change Committee

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