The Uncomfortable Truth About the UK’s Climate Policies

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine feels like a really pivotal moment in this narrative. In the autumn of 2022, energy prices in the UK were skyrocketing, and yet the response of Liz Truss, prime minister at the time, was to double down on oil and gas exploration and refuse to ask people to cut down their energy usage. It was the absolute opposite approach to many European nations facing the same problem.

At the time [the invasion] happened, it was obviously a genuine crisis and I thought climate was going to come down the priority list. But in my technocratic mind, I was also thinking this was going to create the incentive to get off high-carbon fuels—if you want to know what the world looks like with a high carbon price, we’re about to find out.

What I didn’t expect is that the green arguments were too late out of the blocks because the fossil arguments stepped in immediately to say, “This is why we need a domestic fossil fuel supply.” That really important argument, to act on this because fossil fuels are so price-volatile and so expensive, was slightly missed in the political ether at the time, and we jumped to a different narrative of what the country needed to do.

The irony of that whole period is we’re running out of oil and gas. So it’s not going to be a credible strategy in the long run to try and pump prime oil and gas licenses in the North Sea.

A year later, Truss’ successor, Rishi Sunak, made a big speech rolling back key climate policies, most notably pushing back the 2030 deadline banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

If you look at it purely as a policy speech, there was more pro-climate policy than there was delayed climate policy. It was the one where he talks about accelerating green investment, for example. And the electric vehicle thing [pushing back the 2030 deadline] wasn’t that much of a shift, since we were already allowing hybrids until 2035.

But what did the country hear? They heard, “Don’t worry, now’s not the time to switch to electric vehicles.” It’s hard to tie anything back to a single speech, but if you look at the share of electric vehicles being sold in the UK, it has flatlined since September. I’m sure there are other factors here, but there will be people who thought, “Oh well, maybe I don’t need to get that electric car right now.”

It seems that this government has decided to make appealing to motorists a key campaigning strategy. In July 2023, the Labour Party narrowly lost the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, and a lot of commentators thought that the Conservative candidate won that election because of his opposition to the Ultra Low Emission Zone.

What happened there was interesting. The Labour Party also accepted the narrative that ULEZ was why they didn’t win that constituency. Inevitably, in any election there are a host of issues at play, but if all parties think it’s about environmental policies, it’s no surprise that that becomes one of the dominant themes in politics after that.

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