Kuenssberg: Are the politics of climate change going out of fashion?

  • By Laura Kuensberg
  • Presenter, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg

Politics also has fashion: what’s in and what’s out. It wasn’t so long ago that world leaders jostled to have their pictures taken with celebrities like Leonardo diCaprio, Stella McCartney or Emma Watson at the huge COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, hosted by Boris Johnson.

Back then it was hip to be green; being at the 2021 COP was the political equivalent of sitting in the front row of Fashion Week. But with Labor backing away from its big £28bn pledges this week, and the Conservatives changing course and rumors of dropping the so-called ‘boiler tax’, there is no doubt the trends have changed.

What’s different?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took the first steps in September. He did not ignore the government’s green commitments, but slowed the pace of existing plans.

Some Conservatives were thrilled that he addressed some voters’ concerns about the costs of going green, particularly by expanding the ultra-low emissions zone beyond London. Other Tories were furious that it sent the message that the environment was less important, and that irritation has festered ever since, with former minister Chris Skidmore quitting as MP.

This week, however, it was the turn of the Labor leadership, which finally reneged on its promise to spend £28 billion a year to make the country greener.

Without adding to the massive coverage of this decision, it mainly shows that Labor wants to reassure voters that they will be careful with their money above all else.

It’s worth noting that this week was the deadline for Labour’s top team to hand over their manifesto plans to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.

The decision was finally made, after weeks of badgering from the Tories, when the amounts actually had to add up. In addition to its manifesto, Labor will publish a ‘grey book’ setting out its exact spending plans.

This close to an election, the position at the top is that every line of those calculations must be accurate.

Video Caption,

After weeks of speculation, the Labor leader says the party is dropping its spending commitments.

Former minister Robert Jenrick is among those thundering about the risks of “dangerous green fantasy economics”. But there is also an attraction from the other direction.

The aforementioned Chris Skidmore suggested that “if Britain doesn’t act, or turn its face from net zero opportunity, it would be an economic disaster”.

In turn, Sir Keir Starmer was accused by former Labor minister Barry Gardiner of being “economically illiterate and environmentally irresponsible”.

Others are honestly relieved that the big number has gone, with one insider telling me it was “not our finest hour in terms of handling, but we will look back and be very grateful that we did it”.

While the political stance of the parties has changed, the liabilities they face have not changed at all – not because of pressure from celebrities or activists clinging to the roads.

This is because, just before leaving office, Theresa May changed the law in an absolutely profound way by introducing legislation that would force Britain to reach net zero by 2050.

In 2020, this was followed by a new target to reduce emissions by almost 70% by 2030.

At the time the former prime minister was going through it at breakneck speed, 2050 seemed very far away. The practicalities of how such an ambition would be achieved were so vague that MPs (mostly) happily signed up.

One of those involved in the decision told me this week: “We thought it was the right thing to do, but we understood we didn’t have all the answers. It was kind of like when JFK said we were going to get a man on the ground. the moon at the end of the decade. He had no idea how he would do it, but it was a clear ambition.”

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Despite shifting political passions, that clear ambition and commitment has already had a major effect on what the government actually does.

One climate leader points to the cleaner steel package in Port Talbot, or new electric vehicle laws for example, but adds that the government is ‘greenly silent’ – taking action but downplaying it because ‘they don’t want coverage’. of it”.

There is a clear feeling in the industry that politicians do not yet fully understand the scale of the changes that need to be made to restart the energy system – the ‘transition’.

Endless shifts in the details of policy, or discussions about the most important figures, risk missing the big picture. But as both the Conservatives and Labor grapple with the reality of what the big long-term commitments to net zero could really mean, we may be seeing a new phase in this argument.

Polls consistently show that action on climate change is near the top of voters’ concerns – number three on the list from research group More In Common behind the cost of living and health care, and not just among those on the left or among those in their 40s.

Image caption,

Was climate in vogue when Rishi Sunak went to the COP27 climate conference in Egypt shortly after becoming Prime Minister?

But as we move closer to the 2050 and 2030 targets, the practical realities of the transition to a greener economy will hit closer to home.

As one of the architects of the 2050 law, a former senior Conservative figure, has now said: “we are at the point where it is starting to affect individual families, it was always going to be politically controversial”.

The public generally wants action, but may not like its effect – or as it was put to me: “Voters can be hypocritical – they can say ‘I want you to do more’, but if you do, they say ‘Oh, that’s not what I meant’.”

You may be shocked by what is happening to the planet around the world, but don’t be too eager to pay thousands of pounds for a new boiler in your home.

There is a tension between how quickly our two main parties are willing to act to tackle climate change, and the rules and targets they set for themselves.

But there is impatience in the industry at the way the urge to trade goes in and out of fashion, as much of the money to green the economy will come from them.

Maybe our conversations about climate are less about emotion and more about economics. The problem is real. Now the political arguments are here to stay.

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