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Not Zero: Inside the Tory Party Split on Decarbonisation

Then-London mayor Boris Johnson plants waterlilies at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, west London, March 16, 2015 | All images credit: Alamy

8 min read

Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for attaining net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is not shared by all in his party. So can this relatively recent convert to the green agenda persuade Conservatives the price tag is worth it? Rosamund Urwin report

In December 2015, after world leaders united in Paris to fight climate change, a column appeared in The Telegraph. It had been a mild winter, and the writer complained he had found himself sweating at the office Christmas party, only to open the window and discover it was even warmer outside. Pondering whether this was “the long-awaited inflexion point... [when] winter is over for ever,” he called Piers Corbyn, the meteorologist and climate change denier, on whose advice he dismissed it as mere weather, rather than global warming. The columnist was Boris Johnson. 

Fast-forward to 2021, and Johnson has recast himself as an environmental warrior ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this autumn. The Prime Minister and COP26 president Alok Sharma will attempt to use the summit to showcase “Global Britain,” leading a planet-saving mission that presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden both endorse. 

A green industrial revolution has become integral both to Johnson’s vision of post-Brexit Britain and to the Conservatives’ levelling up agenda. In our decarbonised future, the Prime Minister has said we will “cook breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in our electric car,” while British towns and regions – Teesside, Port Talbot, Merseyside and Mansfield – will become “synonymous with green jobs”. Johnson’s Ten Point Plan – with pledges including making the UK “the Saudi Arabia of wind” and a future ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars – is intended to put the country on a path to net-zero by 2050, meaning the carbon emitted into the atmosphere is balanced by the carbon removed from it. But the government’s plans have their Tory detractors, who believe the demands of reaching net-zero will prove politically toxic. 

Johnson is not the first Conservative leader to try to stake out greener ground. As opposition leader, David Cameron urged voters to “vote blue, go green” as he hugged huskies and jumped in a G-Wiz. In government, however, as the financial crisis and austerity bit, this agenda was all but abandoned, with Cameron never quite managing to deny in 2013 that he had dismissed environmental policies as “green crap”. Theresa May’s government, while busy firefighting on Brexit, legislated for a legally binding target for the UK to reach net-zero. What has changed, according to the current regime, is that the environment is no longer an afterthought; low-carbon industry is central to Johnson’s plans to “build back better” after the pandemic and to create growth.

The Brexit government is seen by many young people as hardline... the environment is a way of reaching new younger, maybe more centrist, urban voters

Ryan Shorthouse, chief executive of the liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue, argues there are three reasons for the green makeover: economic, political and ideological. “For a lot of MPs – including many in [former] ‘red wall’ seats – the green agenda is about jobs and levelling up,” he says. “Whether it is the electrification of vehicles, the heating of homes or carbon capture and storage, these are new developments that require an industry around them.” 

Earlier this month, Johnson and Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, visited Sunderland, where Nissan and Envision announced the UK’s first gigafactory; Kwarteng called it “a perfect example of our green industrial revolution”. The swift drop in the cost of low-carbon electricity has also made going green economical. 

Politics also plays a part. “The Brexit government is seen by many young people as hardline,” Shorthouse says. “What Johnson is most concerned about is retaining power [and] the environment is a way of reaching new younger, maybe more centrist, urban voters.” One junior minister adds that it enables the party to “move back to the centre after the toxicity of Brexit”. 

Committed environmentalist Stanley Johnson, the Prime Minister's father, and Carrie Johnson, wife of Boris, at an anti-whaling protest outside the Japanese Embassy in London, January 2019

The band of Tory true believers is growing, inspired by long-term evangelists like the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie, his father Stanley and their friends, the Goldsmith family. While Zac Goldsmith has continued his environmental work from the House of Lords after losing his seat in 2019, his brother Ben now chairs the increasingly-vocal Conservative Environment Network (CEN), a lobby group with 99 MPs in its caucus that aims to reclaim environmentalism from the Left. 

They are pitted against green-sceptics on the Tory benches, including some of Johnson’s former allies from the Leave camp, most notably Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, who has pledged to make the cost of decarbonisation “his next great crusade”. His fear is that the demands of meeting net-zero will hurt living standards. He was incensed by a proposal earlier this year (since quietly abandoned by No 10) to fine homeowners who do not remove their gas boilers by 2035. Baker has also joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate sceptic group led by former chancellor Lord Lawson. 

Tory MPs tend to split the green agenda into two strands. The first is the easier sell: the green industrial revolution, meaning jobs in former “red wall” seats. The second is tougher: forcing consumers to replace their boilers with heat pumps, or switch gas-guzzling car for an electric vehicle. “Industrialisation commands support,” says a Tory MP. “The problem – and where [MPs] are starting to agitate – is at the household level, where we are talking about passing large costs on to individuals and families.” 

This isn’t our natural territory – we’re not the Lib Dems, we’re not hippies in sandals

Baker puts it more bluntly. “If Boris Johnson forces the public into buying expensive, ineffective heating, if he makes us give up our cars, we will reap what we have sown,” he wrote in The Sun in May. “The cost of net-zero could deliver a political crisis greater than the poll tax.” 

An MP sympathetic to Baker (pictured below) adds: “Say we go down the route of electric cars, that means road pricing to replace the income from fuel taxes... And this isn’t our natural territory – we’re not the Lib Dems, we’re not hippies in sandals.”

Even liberal Tories agree this part is difficult. “To date, decarbonisation has felt relatively distant from consumers, with industries like the power sector making great strides to phase out coal,” says Shorthouse. “The next step is going to be much more invasive into people’s lives – how they travel, heat their homes and eat.” He argues policies are needed to ensure middle and low income voters are helped to make green changes.  “If they’re not, then this consensus and enthusiasm in the Conservative Party may disappear.” 

But Sam Hall, director of the CEN, says the Tory vision to reach net-zero isn’t about individuals stopping flying or changing their diets: “It is much more focused on innovation.” He admits gas boilers present a challenge, but says the plan isn’t to rip them out, but to create incentives to buy heat pumps, which will help expand a nascent market and bring the price down.

Outside the party, many environmentalists say that the £12bn climate package is too small. Moreover, critics argue that the government’s policies are incoherent: ministers have recently approved a new gas-fired power plant in North Yorkshire and are holding a review into plans for a deep coal mine in Cumbria. A new oilfield in the North Sea is also mooted. 

In a recent report, the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government, criticised the UK’s slow progress, noting a gulf between rhetoric and action. The country is on course to cut only a fifth of the emissions needed to meet the 2035 target of cutting carbon by 78 per cent compared to 1990. 

Some critics fear Johnson may eventually sacrifice “net-zero” for political expediency. But his father disputes that, claiming his son has a love of nature stemming from growing up on an Exmoor farm. “This is a valley where owls hoot, deer roam, swallows swoop, butterflies flutter and the river runs through it,” says Stanley. 

The risk for Johnson is that he ends up buffeted on both sides: by climate-sceptic backbenchers fuming at green penalties, and by a new breed of Conservative environmentalists whose wish list is expensive. Even his own father is not without criticism, expressing fears that the Tories have watered down their pledges on biodiversity.

The pro-net-zero camp wants COP26 to lead not only to international action, but change here too. “It is vital that the government... demonstrates true leadership by being as ambitious as possible at home,” says Neil Parish, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the MP for Tiverton and Honiton in Devon. Parish has his own costly proposal: rewarding farmers for tree-planting to capture carbon.

Johnson Sr warns that the lobbying power of donors could also derail the Tories’ green plans. “The Conservative party is no different from any other party – and [that means] money talks,” he says. “The people who put up money [party donors] are normally people who are interested in short-term profits. It doesn’t behove any of us greens to rest on our laurels.”

The question is whether his son can see off an enviro-sceptic rebellion and persuade true blue Tories of the wisdom of going green. 

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