- By Laura Kuenssberg
- Presenter, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg
Politics also has fashions – what comes in and what goes out. It wasn’t long ago that world leaders jostled to be photographed with celebrities such as Leonardo diCaprio, Stella McCartney or Emma Watson at the huge COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, where Boris Johnson was the host.
At the time, it was trendy to be green – being at COP in 2021 was the political equivalent of being front row at fashion week. But with Labor backing away from its massive £28 billion commitments this week, and the Tories changing tack and rumored to abandon the so-called “boiler tax”, there is no doubt that trends have changed.
What is different?
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took the first steps in September. He did not rule out the government’s green commitments, but he did slow down existing plans.
Some Conservatives were delighted that he was paying attention to some voters’ concerns about the cost of going green, most notably by extending the ultra-low emissions zone to the outskirts of London. Other Tories were furious that he had sent the message that the environment was less important, and that anger has since grown, with former minister Chris Skidmore quitting as an MP.
This week, however, it was the Labor leadership’s turn, finally ditching its promise to spend £28 billion a year to help the country go green.
Without adding to the extensive coverage of this decision, it shows above all that the Labor Party wants to assure voters that they would be careful with their money over anything else.
It’s worth noting that this week was the deadline for Labour’s top team to present their manifesto plans to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.
The decision was finally made, after weeks of conservative insults, when the sums really had to add up. Alongside its manifesto, the Labor Party will publish a “grey book” that will set out its exact spending plans.
So close to an election, the view from above is that every line of these calculations must be precise.
Former minister Robert Jenrick is one of those thundering about the risks of the “dangerous green fantasy economy”. But there is also a pull in the other direction.
The aforementioned Chris Skidmore suggested that “if the UK doesn’t move forward, or turns against net zero opportunities, 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 frankly relieved that large numbers are gone, with one source telling me that “it wasn’t our finest moment in terms of handling, but we will look back and be very grateful that we did it.”
While the parties’ political attitudes have changed, what hasn’t changed are the obligations they face – not because of pressure from celebrities or roadside activists.
This is because, shortly before leaving office, Theresa May changed the law in an absolutely profound way, introducing legislation that would force the UK to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
In 2020, another target of reducing emissions by almost 70% by 2030 followed.
At the time the former prime minister moved forward at breakneck speed, 2050 seemed a long way off. The practicalities of how such an ambition would be achieved were so vague that MPs (for the most part) happily signed on.
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 a bit like when JFK said we were going to land a man on 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 the shift in political passions, this clear ambition and obligation has already had an important effect on what the government is actually doing.
A climate leader points to the cleaner steel package in Port Talbot, or new laws on electric vehicles, for example, but adds that the government is “green muting” – taking action but downplaying it because “they don’t they want any coverage of this.”
There is a clear sense in the industry that politicians have not yet fully grasped the scale of the changes that have to be made to restart the energy system – the “transition”.
Endless changes to policy specifics or arguments over headline numbers risk missing the bigger picture. But with both the Conservatives and Labor grappling with the reality of what big, long-term commitments to carbon neutrality might actually mean, perhaps what we are seeing is a new phase in this argument.
Polls consistently show that action on climate change is at the top of voters’ concerns – third on research group More In Common’s list, behind the cost of living and healthcare, and not just among those in left or under 40 years old. .
But as we get closer to the targets for 2050 and 2030, the practical realities of shifting to a greener economy will hit closer to home.
As one of the architects of the 2050 law, a former conservative figure, has now said, “we have reached the point where it starts to affect individual families and was always going to become politically controversial”.
The public generally wants action, but they may not like the effect it has – or as I was told: “Voters can be hypocrites – they may say ‘I want them to do more’, but when they do, they say ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to. say that’.”
You might be horrified by what’s happening on the planet around the world, but not be too eager to pay thousands of dollars for a new boiler at 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 themselves have set.
But there is impatience in the industry about how the appetite to act comes in and out of fashion, because much of the money to green the economy will come from them.
Maybe our conversations about climate are becoming less about emotions and more about economics. The problem is real. Now political arguments are here to stay.