Are green issues a new dividing line in British politics?
By Sasha Batchelor, Intern

The UK Government’s recent Energy Week coincided with the recording of both the world’s hottest day and the wettest July in the UK. Against this backdrop, the Government’s announcements during Energy Week focused on energy security and bolstering the UK’s energy independence.

While the Government remains committed to meeting the UK’s net zero targets, there has been a notable shift in the rhetoric around environmental issues after the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. The Conservatives’ surprise victory was widely attributed to opposition to Sadiq Khan’s planned expansion to the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London. In the following weeks, green issues have become an increasingly salient political topic as Labour have showed signs of shifting their position. Senior Labour figures tried to distance themselves from the ULEZ expansion, with Sir Keir Starmer urging Khan to “reflect” on his proposal. This follows the recent watering down of Labour’s plan to invest £28 billion per year in the green transition as it seeks to prioritise its fiscal prudence ahead of the next general election.

It was a busy Energy Week for the Government. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Grant Shapps, met with leading figures from oil, gas and renewable sectors to reassure them that the UK remains “absolutely committed” to hitting its net zero carbon targets by 2050, but argued they would meet them “in a pragmatic way”. The Government also faced backlash from climate scientists and green groups after announcing 100 new oil and gas drilling licenses in the North Sea. While Rishi Sunak defended the move as crucial for increasing the UK’s energy security, critics argued the new licenses would only have a marginal impact on supply and would not reduce energy prices in the UK.

In other announcements, the Government continued its support for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) by confirming that projects Acorn (in Scotland) and Viking (in the Humber) would be the UK’s third and fourth carbon capture usage and storage clusters. Grant Shapps also revealed a £22 million increase in funding for the renewable energy Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, the Government’s main method of supporting the generation of low-carbon electricity. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 despite pressure to delay this deadline from backbenchers on the right of the Conservative Party.

These announcements reflect a mixed bag in relation to the Sunak Government’s position on environmental issues and net zero. The reassertion of the UK’s commitment to its net zero targets contrasted with a clear shift in Government rhetoric, suggesting that Rishi Sunak is attempting to tread a fine line on the issue.

This adds to the growing evidence that green issues are becoming an increasingly important political dividing line. Sunak promised to be “on the side” of motorists and announced a review into Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). The Conservatives have attempted – with limited success – to tie Labour’s opposition to the new North Sea oil and gas licences to the £1.5 million in donations it has received from Dale Vince who has also donated to Just Stop Oil. In response, Labour hit back and criticised the Government’s “failed energy policy" for the UK’s current predicament.

The Government’s politicisation of green issues is not a complete surprise given the difficulties they have faced attempting to make progress on Sunak’s five pledges related to various economic targets, NHS waiting lists and small boat crossings. However, the Government’s shift in rhetoric raises important questions about the politics of the net zero transition, and the apparent voter backlash against specific green policies may not be all that it seems.

Recent polling has suggested that at 71% there is high support among the public for the UK’s net zero targets, however there is or would be strong opposition if the goal resulted in “additional costs for ordinary people”. It suggests that while there is underlying support for net zero goals in the UK, the transition must be done in a way that is perceived as fair and affordable to voters.

The recent developments related to energy policy largely reflect a shift in rhetoric as opposed to a wholesale abandonment of the Government’s commitment to its net zero goals. The UK plans to host international summit on energy security in spring 2024, suggesting that the Government’s recent framing of net zero primarily in terms of energy security is set to continue.

With Starmer reportedly set to oppose further ULEZ zones outside London due to concerns over their political toxicity during a cost-of-living crisis, perhaps Rishi Sunak is correct to view environmental issues as a fruitful area that he can attack the increasingly divided Labour Party on. This will exacerbate existing concerns raised by bodies such as the Climate Change Committee (CCC) over the UK’s ability to meet its climate targets and its position as a global climate leader.

The fine balance on going green, popular support versus not wanting to pay more, mean that sustainability will become an ever more hotly contested wedge issue ahead of the general election expected next year.

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