Back to the 1970s: why the Conservatives are cooling on net zero


Plans to revive North Sea oil and push back 2030 net zero targets could mark the end of the UK’s 35-year cross-party consensus on the need to cut emissions. Fiona Harvey explains why some Conservatives see an electoral advantage in pulling the climate emergency into the ‘culture wars’.


The last three months were the hottest period yet recorded on Earth, and July was probably the hottest month in about 120,000 years. Heatwaves swept Europe, Asia, and North America. Smoke from Canadian wildfires darkened the skies of New York. A quarter of Greece’s agricultural production was wiped out as a year’s rainfall fell within days of the summer heatwaves. In Libya in September as many as 10,000 people may have died in severe flooding.

Rishi Sunak, the UK’s prime minister, chose this summer to announce that Britain would “max out” its oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, exploiting every possible drop of fossil fuel production, issuing about 100 new licences for exploration and development, and expediting decisions to bring new fields onstream as quickly as possible.

The new fields given the go-ahead in the last two years would produce the equivalent of Denmark’s annual emissions, or about as much as 14m cars on the road, according to analysis by Greenpeace. Substantial as they are, those fields are small compared to what could be in the offing – the Rosebank oil and gas field is the largest undeveloped field in the UK, containing an estimated 500m barrels of oil, which would produce about200m tonnes of CO2. That is roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of the United Arab Emirates, the country that will host this year’s UN climate summit. A green light for Rosebank is thought to be imminent.

On 21 September, Sunak announced the rollback of several key policy measures intended to achieve the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. He pushed back the 2030 target for the end of petrol and diesel car sales to 2035, abandoned a 2035 target for stopping gas boiler installations, and ruled out obliging landlords to make rentals more energy efficient.

An end to the consensus on climate?

Sunak’s stance on North Sea oil and polluting vehicles and boilers may be a desperate roll of the policy dice from a government wearied by more than 13 years in office. But many fear is a dangerous moment, and the UK’s 35-year cross-party political consensus on the climate is under attack.

With his personal predilection for helicopter and private jet travel, and a swimming pool which needed its own electricity grid connection, Sunak seems to flaunt the lifestyle of one of the global ‘polluting elite’, the wealthy 1 percent whose emissions are more than twice those of the 3.5 billion people in the poorer half of the globe. Yet he cites the influence of his two daughters in teaching him about the environment.

Sunak knows that the UK’s current high oil and gas prices will not be reduced by greenlighting new oilfields, which will take a decade to come on stream and will sell their products to the highest bidder. His stance on the North Sea seems driven by political calculation – it is important to be seen to be doing something, as the cost of living crisis bites. But as he casts around for ideas before the next election, which could take place any time before January 2025, some of his advisers want him to go much further and make the climate a “culture war” issue to establish a clear division with the opposing Labour Party.

That would be a new departure for UK politics. Ever since Margaret Thatcher, a chemist by training, addressed the UN general assembly in 1989 on the need for governments to act on global warming, all of the UK’s mainstream political parties have espoused climate action. Climate denial of the kind so distressingly, and cynically, on show in the US presidential election is all but unknown here. Campaigning on green issues has focused on parties vying to outdo each other in their commitments, rather than attacks for being too eco-friendly.

That could be about to change. This year, Sunak did not attend the UN general assembly, and while nominally still committed to the UK’s net zero by 2050 target, many of his policies, and absence of policy, run counter to that goal.

Sunak was never much interested in the climate crisis, according to the recently resigned minister Zac Goldsmith. In his previous role, as chancellor of the exchequer from 2020 to 2022, he kept tight control of the nation’s finances and was reluctant to allow his then boss Boris Johnson to introduce any green policies that required investment or could add to consumers’ bills.

How net zero could be dragged into the culture wars

The UK’s goal of reaching net zero by 2050 is enshrined in law and given that polls consistently show that 70 percent of voters favour climate action, it is unlikely that any party will pledge in their manifesto to repeal that law. Instead, if Sunak is persuaded to pander to the right wing of his party and open up a culture war on the climate, it will be more subtle.

Next year’s election manifestos have yet to be written, but the thrust we can expect from the Conservatives is now clear. Expect trumpeting about the expansion of oil and gas in the North Sea, and more attacks suggesting Labour’s plans for a £28bn investment in green jobs are “unaffordable”. Airports will be expanded, new roads championed over railways or other public transport, and anything Labour proposes on greening transport ill immediately be derided as a “war on motorists”.

Even when the government appears to make a positive green move, it is not always what it seems. Despite trumpeting a decision to lift the eight-year ban on onshore wind farms – which has meant that the UK installed fewer new onshore turbines than Ukraine last year – the government has muddied the fine print to an extent that developers say it will have little impact. This continued pandering to supposed NIMBY objections to wind farms ignores the consistent polls that show a majority of Britons in favour of turbines, even close to their homes. 

Proposed moves to force housebuilders to improve the environmental sustainability of new homes will be delayed, dropped, or enfeebled by the Tories, with the excuse that such burdensome regulation would hamper the provision of much-needed new homes. Support for green energy will be anaemic, though nuclear will get some backing.

Defenders of the government say all of this can be done without endangering the global climate. They protest that the UK’s contribution to the climate crisis is dwarfed by giants such as China or the US, which should bear the burden of doing more. They cry that as an economy struggling to recover from the COVID pandemic, the UK should concentrate on growth first, and green later.

That is to underplay the UK’s moral responsibilities as a historic emitter of greenhouse gases, and its role as a developed economy. It also ignores the economic advantages of going green – the whole world will have to reach net zero to survive, so why choose to be a laggard in the industries and economy of the future?

It is true that the North Sea’s oil and gas reserves are declining fast, but they still contain enough fuel to make a substantial difference to the UK’s carbon footprint, and global hopes of limiting temperature rises to1.5C above pre-industrial levels – the limit agreed by all countries at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, which was hailed as a diplomatic triumph for the UK hosts. That was less than two years ago. It seems a political lifetime ago for the Tory party.