How will the next PM handle the cost of living and environmental crises?


How will the next UK PM handle the cost-of-living and environmental crises?

The Average Household’s Energy Expenditures Are Expected to Exceed £3,500 Per Year While Forces on The Tory Right Want to Bury The ‘Green Agenda’

Next Tuesday, the fourth Conservative prime minister in six years will take office, facing a series of inflationary economic and social crises not seen since the 1970s

Energy expenditures are expected to exceed £3,500 per year for the average home, pushing two-thirds into fuel poverty by January, while food prices have risen at the highest rate in more than a decade, adding about £500 to the average annual grocery bill. Key workers are striking or considering strikes, and services ranging from health care to the judiciary are on the verge of collapsing. Meanwhile, sewage is pouring into our rivers and beaches, becoming a literal metaphor for the status of the nation.

Voices on the Tory right have seized on the overlapping issues to call for the death of the “green agenda” associated with David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson, as well as the legally binding objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. To the delight of rightwing commentators, David Frost, who is projected for a prominent post in a Liz Truss cabinet, has launched a forceful campaign on net zero, blaming the programme for high energy prices. Get rid of the “green crap,” they argue, and petrol prices would plummet, allowing ministers to focus on more vital issues.

Long-standing advisers have warned that abandoning net zero would be to forfeit the best possibility of dealing with rising living costs. Far from being to blame for the energy bill crisis, they say that net zero energy, which requires energy to be used more efficiently and created from sustainable sources, is the way out.

“What we have to do for net zero is what we have to do for the cost-of-living crisis,” said John Gummer, a former Conservative environment minister and chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). “When people say we can’t afford net zero, we frankly can’t afford not to go for net zero.”

Ben Goldsmith, investor and a longstanding green Tory, chair of the Conservative Environment Network of more than 100 MPs, said: “With what’s happened on the cost of living across the board – gas, electricity, food, everything – we need to put the response to that on something of a war footing. And that means a war footing for the effort around energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

At least three of the many serious issues confronting the incoming prime minister have a major environmental component. Soaring energy bills necessitate an overhaul of the UK’s failing, gas-dependent energy system, from leaky homes to ageing nuclear reactors; the cost-of-living crisis is exacerbated by rising food prices, highlighting farm policies; and the sewage scandal stems from a failure to take environmentalists’ concerns seriously over a two-decade period.

Home insulation has the potential to decrease heating expenditures in half, and heat pumps have the potential to lessen the UK’s dependency on expensive gas while also lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Following the cancellation of the failed ‘green houses’ programme last year, the rate of home insulation was cut in half. That programme, started by Johnson under the motto “build back greener” following the Covid-19 shock, sought to insulate 600,000 homes but was cancelled in March 2021 after just 15,000 were completed.

The planned ‘green homes’ grant funds were withdrawn by Rishi Sunak as chancellor and were not restored, leaving the UK without a statewide scheme for typical household home insulation for nearly 18 months at a time of skyrocketing energy prices. Sunak did not mention insulation during the early stages of his campaign, but in recent weeks has begun to propose a housing programme – but without specifying how it would function. Truss has mainly dodged the subject, instead pushing for an end to green levies, which she claims would save £153 on the average family energy bill but would also reduce funds available for retrofitting the poorest households and jeopardise jobs.

Increasing renewable energy would also lower energy bills, but both candidates have been staunchly opposed to solar power and new onshore wind farms, the cheapest form of electricity generation. Their aim appears to be pleasing the right side of Conservative members, for whom planning regulations have long been a source of contention, while poll after poll reveals that the public, in general, supports the development of additional renewables.

Gaining planning permission for solar farms is already difficult – at least 23 have been refused in the last 18 months, which might have saved £100 million in energy bills. Only offshore wind appears to be appealing to the candidates among renewable technologies; as Truss recently claimed, the world’s largest offshore wind farm is under development off the Yorkshire coast.

Despite both candidates’ excitement for drilling, investments in North Sea oil and gas or fracking will not lower energy prices. New gas fields take years, if not decades, to come online, and fracking, even if it can overcome local opposition, is unlikely to produce large amounts of gas anytime soon.

The cost of living is also rising as a result of rising food prices. According to the London School of Economics, new trade obstacles as a result of Brexit have caused a 6% increase in food costs in the UK, yet neither candidate will admit it. Instead, any change in food policy is likely to concentrate on trade and farm policy, and the risk is that the new prime minister will abandon reforms begun by May and continued by Johnson to replace farming subsidies based on the amount of land farmed with payments for measures that preserve soils, protect nature, and nurture wildlife, a new system known as Environmental Land Management Contracts (ELMS).

“Farmers need to trust ELMS, and the government needs to stay on course,” said Ben Goldsmith, the UK’s most prominent green Tory outside parliament. “We have to reward regenerative agriculture, restore nature, and rebut the suggestion that restoring nature and rebuilding soil will cost us in food security when the exact opposite is true.”

In addition to the overarching issue of the cost-of-living crisis, the new prime minister will be faced with a series of critical decisions on green policy. Ministers have repeatedly postponed any announcement on the proposed new coal mine in Cumbria, which is now scheduled for November; Lord Deben was supposed to step down from the CCC in September but will instead stay on until June, leaving the appointment of his successor to the new leader; and, under the Environment Act, new air quality standards should be set this autumn, in a key test of whether the government is serious about retaining environmental safeguards post-Brexit.

Green campaigners are concerned that promises of a “bonfire of regulations” made during the campaign mean the opposite, and that important protections for air, water, wildlife, and other components of the natural environment may be lost.

Whether the future prime minister’s deregulatory zeal extends to destroying the UK’s environmental safeguards will be mainly determined by the ministerial appointments they make to the cabinet and within Downing Street.

Shaun Spiers, the executive director of the Green Alliance think tank, said: “The composition of No 10 is very important. If Truss comes in with a slimmed-down No 10, or Lord Frost, that’s going to be very difficult. No 10 has been hugely important in driving the nature agenda up to now.”

Domestic challenges will preoccupy the new prime minister, but international policy issues will be equally serious. Following the historic Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, the UK will be expected to pull out all the diplomatic stops to attempt to hold together the fragile agreement formed there, despite the geopolitical upheavals caused by the Ukraine invasion. In an interview with the Guardian, Alok Sharma, the cabinet minister who organised the Glasgow conference, threatened to leave if the incoming prime minister did not commit to a robust green agenda.

Many nations will also turn to the UK to take the lead in biodiversity talks known as Cop15, which attempt to prevent the sharp decline of species and the natural environment. “The United Kingdom has been a leader in allocating international funding for nature restoration in the world’s poorest countries,” says Ben Goldsmith. Nonetheless, Sunak, as chancellor, reduced overseas aid, and Truss, as foreign minister, shifted much of the remaining monies to a more commercial orientation.

Sunak and Truss were neither particularly green in Johnson’s cabinet. Sunak obstructed green funding, while Truss, as trade secretary, minimised environmental goals in trade agreements and played virtually no role in Cop26. “Neither is known for their passion for nature, and neither has made their name as an environmental leader,” Goldsmith added. Neither has made the environment a major policy pillar in their campaigns.

(Note: While COP15 relates to biodiversity, COP26 was concerned with climate change. At COP26, which was held in Glasgow, UK, nations around the world agreed to a range of measures, including new funding commitments, accelerated efforts to phase down the use of coal, and pledges to end deforestation by 2030.)

Green activists are hoping that whoever wins will have to look far further afield. Polls routinely demonstrate that voters are concerned about environmental issues ranging from climate change to the UK’s sewage-strewn beaches, polluted air, and plastic-choked rivers. “These issues couldn’t be closer to home, there’s clear demand from voters wanting to see these things sorted, and the next prime minister has to get a grip on them,” said Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK.


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