How fossil fuel money stalled Britain’s commitment to net zero


Britain’s right-wing news outlets have sown doubt on the viability of net zero, and the government has pushed back targets and issued new licences for North Sea exploration. Hazel Healy explains how a group of influential think tanks whose donors and board members profit from fossil fuels have systematically undermined climate science and renewable technologies. Their connections to No 10 enable them to sway the Prime Minister and his ministers.

Teaser Image Caption
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Bacton Oil & Gas Terminal in November 2023.


Check out our web dossier "The road to the 2024 European Parliament elections", featuring insights from the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung's offices and partners on the 2024 European Parliament elections, the next EU legislative term, and the "super election" year 2024 ✅🗳️🇪🇺

On a balmy evening in late June, Rishi Sunak addressed a small crowd gathered on the lawns of College Gardens in Westminster for a summer party. Thanking the Policy Exchange think tank, which he said had “helped us draft” government laws targeting climate protest, the PM must have felt he was among friends.

The policing bill in question passed in 2022 and draws directly from a briefing by Policy Exchange, which labelled Extinction Rebellion “extremists” and called for a crackdown. The following year, Just Stop Oil reported that 138 climate activists had spent time in prison for peaceful protest. The sentencing was so harsh, it attracted criticism from the UN.

While Policy Exchange does not disclose its donors, its US branch is known to have taken funds from oil giant ExxonMobil. It is just one of many opaquely funded think tanks with an unhealthy grip over the British policymakers who have splintered the climate consensus in Britain.

The Tufton Street lobby

The shift to a cleaner, greener world poses a threat to the interests of some of the world’s richest, most powerful – and secretive – people. Their interests dovetail with those of half a dozen think tanks based in and around 55 Tufton Street in Westminster. Among them are Civitas, Policy Exchange, Centre for Policy Studies, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

While most of the think tanks claim to be ‘non-partisan’, none could be called a friend of government net zero targets, and all are pro-fracking. They share a platform that is anti-regulation and pro-criminalisation of protest, and shuffle advisers and donors between them.

The GWPF is the leading climate-science denial voice in the UK. Its views are fringe: its campaign arm has called for coal-fired power stations to stay open, and for renewable energy to be “wound down” completely. Yet the GWPF has Tory peers and past and serving MPs on its board and enjoys extensive influence over the Conservatives. A now-former trustee, Steve Baker MP, co-led the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) of backbenchers, which unleashed a rear-guard action against green policy in early 2022. The GWPF also sent its employees to work for NZSG’s co-leader, the MP Craig Mackinlay.

In the same Tufton Street club are free marketeers the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) – best known as the architects of short-lived PM Liz Truss’ catastrophic economic programme – which have taken money from oil giant BP every year since 1967. Its associates echo the claims of the GWPF: that green policy will “take us back to the dark ages” or make people “poorer and more deprived”, and call for net zero targets to be scrapped.

These arguments, which are woven into anti-green messaging aimed at the British public, are “narratives of delay”. They downplay the urgency of climate change and misrepresent policy put in place to address it, to sow confusion, doubt, and fear.

Money talks

The Tufton groups choose to conceal their donors and all rank between D and E on Open Democracy’s Who Funds You? transparency ranking. But journalists have dug into US records to reveal substantial inflows to these groups from US donors that support climate science denial, and direct donations from energy companies.

The personal investments of board members are also telling. The Centre for Policy Studies is part-funded by its own board, five of whom have hefty financial personal fortunes tied up in oil and gas. (The thinktank says the investments of its directors “have no bearing on their relationship with the CPS”, which it describes as a “prominent champion of free-market environmentalism”).

Money flows out as well as in. The Conservative Party received over £630,000 from Tufton Street board members in the six months after Rishi Sunak became prime minister, while GWPF donor Michael Hintze earlier this month donated funds to Clare Coutinho, the current energy security and net zero secretary.

Their influence is visible and well-documented. Tufton Street groups peddle untrammelled access to politicians, and are ubiquitous in the media. Former IEA boss Mark Littlewood offered private US firms intimate dinners and introductions to ministers, and the organisation claims to have made over 5,200 media appearances in the past year. Energy companies can sponsor think tanks’ reports, and pay to host panels and events at party conferences.

A revolving door of job moves compounds this influence. In April 2023, half a dozen Tufton Street alumni were special advisers, while Sunak himself used to work at Policy Exchange.

North Sea spoils

It should come as little surprise that Tufton Street demands often morph into policy. This often hinges around extracting more oil and gas. In 2022, when Liz Truss came to power, she immediately lifted the ban on fracking shale gas, a longstanding policy ask of the IEA and other pressure groups. When Sunak replaced her in October 2022, his party reinstated the fracking ban but approved the first coal mine in three decades – something both the IEA and GWPF wanted.  He has presided over the issue of new licences for drilling in the North Sea and is in the process of writing annual licensing rounds into law. He also greenlighted the vast North Sea oilfield, Rosebank.

The call to “accelerate” oil and gas drilling in the North Sea has been a consistent demand from the Centre for Policy Studies. Its chair Lord Michael Spencer has stakes in no fewer than 18 North Sea areas through his majority shareholding in Deltic Energy. (He is also one of the most generous donors to the Conservatives, giving more than £7.5 million since 2015).

Tufton Street think tanks also embed industry friendly “net zero” solutions into policymaking. One such favoured technology is carbon capture and storage (CCS), which has failed to get off the ground, and “blue hydrogen” production, which has been criticised as unproven and polluting. Both featured heavily in the government’s 2021 North Sea Transition Deal, which asked very little of oil companies and allowed oil and gas exploration to continue.

The plan also bore a striking resemblance to a contemporary report by Policy Exchange that was co-written by an energy lobbyist and “generously supported” by a firm with major financial interests in the gas industry, and the deployment of hydrogen.

Regulatory capture is so baked in and normalised that the government admits it freely, not just at summer parties. Former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg says the government often follows Policy Exchange’s lead, while Rishi Sunak says the same about CPS.

A co-ordinated comms assault

While Policy Exchange and the CPS write UK policy, other Tufton Street think tanks such as Citivas and GWPF set the mood music with reports that undermine the green transition. These attacks on renewable energy stream into the public consciousness via willing media partners, which offer slots on air and newspaper coverage – ten of the columnists in the conservative broadsheet the Daily Telegraph have links to the GWPF.

A recent report published by Civitas wildly overstated the cost of reaching net zero. Littered with errors, the report was retracted, but not before it had been covered in The Times, Daily Express, Daily Mail, the Spectator, and the influential conservative blog Guido Fawkes, under headlines like: “Net zero to cost Britons an extra £6,000 a year”. This assault on green policy is primed by industry-funded PR efforts. The gas lobby was behind a barrage of negative press about heat pumps, which are core to the UK’s plans to cut carbon emissions from home heating.

Another reliable mouthpiece for anti-net zero views – and attacks on “eco-zealots” – is broadcaster GB News, where one in three of the hosts cast doubt on climate science during 2022. Its owner, Paul Marshall, has over £1.8 billion invested in fossil fuels.

It is the greatest irony that the populist message – on repeat – is that green policy equates with state over-reach and is led by self-serving elites. But behind these arguments are hugely wealthy individuals and corporations fighting to protect their interests at all costs.

In the pocket

Since coming to power, Sunak has delayed the UK’s decarbonisation plans and enabled greater oil and gas extraction. He has attacked his own government’s green transport schemes, criticised imaginary meat taxes and postponed the phase-out of polluting vehicles. All this is happening as the IPCC urges drastic, immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and a fundamental reordering of our energy systems.

But Sunak isn’t listening to the UN – he’s listening to Tufton Street. When he addressed COP28 in Dubai, he told world leaders that he had watered down UK climate policies on energy efficiency and heat pumps in order not ‘to burden working people’. The former US vice president Al Gore told Channel 4 News that the UK government was seemingly in the “pocket of fossil fuel companies”.

Financial self-interest has driven the UK government’s capitulation to fossil fuel industries. It will come at a high price to younger generations of Britons and those that follow. 


The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.