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The next prime minister must get serious about tackling climate change

4 min read

In the first head-to-head TV debate between prime ministerial hopefuls Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak on Monday evening, climate change got barely a look in.

In spite of the fact that temperatures in the United Kingdom soared past 40 degrees for the first time on record last week, with widespread impacts on health and public services, the existential ecological crisis facing us all was dealt with in a few cursory minutes.

Sunak boasted that he takes advice on climate change from his daughters and loves recycling, while Truss assured us that she used to be an eco-warrior. Sunak is right that increasing the energy efficiency of our homes is an easy and effective way to reduce energy bills and gas consumption. But the reality is that neither of the candidates' policies on climate change comes anywhere close to what is needed.

Truss says she will cut the green levy on energy bills, wants to use gas as a transition fuel, and has suggested she would end the ban on fracking. Meanwhile, Sunak who consistently opposed climate spending as chancellor, would block onshore wind, and has cut taxes on domestic flights. Neither candidate committed to keeping the UK’s net-zero target, despite this being the manifesto pledge they were elected on in 2019, until pressure from the Conservative Environment Network forced them to do so.

Even though the vast majority of the British public supports faster and deeper action on climate change (including 76 per cent of Conservative voters) the prospective candidates for prime minister seem determined to fight the leadership election on economic grounds. But if this is a battle over who can best steer the economy out of its current slump and address the cost-of-living crisis, the question is not whether we can afford to act on climate change, but why we think we can we afford not to.

Neither of the candidates' policies on climate change comes anywhere close to what is needed

The price of gas is currently double the cost of solar. Only the presence of renewables in the UK’s energy mix is having any sort of restraining effect on prices. The Environment Agency is warning of a potential drought in August, which would devastate UK farming and put more upward pressure on food prices. The cost can be counted in lives too: there were more than 2,500 excess deaths last summer in the UK alone due to extreme heat. And the impacts are being felt much more harshly in many developing countries.

The mismatch between what is needed and what our leaders are doing cannot last. A landmark court ruling last Tuesday found that the government’s Net Zero Strategy breaches its obligations under the Climate Change Act due to a lack of detail on how key climate targets will be met.   

The judge ruled the government must now spell out how its policies will achieve climate targets, based on a realistic assessment of what it actually expects them to deliver. This will be a huge test for whoever next steps up to the despatch box as prime minister. Crucially, it shows the Climate Change Act, the result of campaigning led by Friends of the Earth more than a decade ago, will be enforced by our justice system if the government doesn’t comply with its legal duties. No longer will it be possible to treat climate targets as an optional extra.

There are three things the next prime minister could do immediately to bring down emissions and reduce the cost of living. Firstly, a council-led, street-by-street, free loft and cavity wall insulation programme for domestic houses, starting in the most deprived areas, would reduce bills for the poorest families, add value to our aging housing stock, and dramatically reduce emissions – in perpetuity. Insulated houses will also be cooler in future heatwaves.

Secondly, our next leader needs to say yes to cheap, clean energy, and no to dirty, expensive new fossil fuel projects. Ramping up oil and gas extraction will increase pollution and fuel even more extreme weather. It will set us firmly on the path to destruction or, as the UN Secretary General put it: “collective suicide”. Conversely, onshore wind energy is six times cheaper than gas and there are around 600 projects that could come on stream within weeks.   

Finally, the new prime minister must help homes get off gas by switching to clean, affordable heat pumps. There are 10 million homes across the country where an electric heat pump could be installed tomorrow, and the dirty gas boiler switched off for good. All these steps will create thousands of meaningful, long-term jobs.

Last week’s record temperatures gave us a terrifying flavour of what is to come. We know we have to act now, and we know what to do. There are quite simply no excuses for inaction. If Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak don’t understand that, they are not fit to lead this country.


Miriam Turner and Hugh Knowles are co-executive directors of Friends of the Earth.

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