The government’s response to the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election and its announcement on new licences for North Sea oil and gas drilling shows contempt for the climate and the UK electorate.
The recent Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election result and the response to it were remarkable for two things. First, the Conservatives held the seat against expectations which excited a lot of people but obscured the fact that they lost two other by-elections on the same day (in previously rock-solid Conservative seats) after their vote collapsed. By common consent, the swing against them was 21%, more or less the same as the consistent lead Labour have held in the opinion polls this year. If you’re a Conservative Party supporter, you’d be looking for something – anything – that would improve that grim statistic.
The second remarkable thing was their subsequent decision. Ignoring the inconvenient fact that Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charges wouldn’t apply to the majority of drivers in the constituency, their campaign attacked the expansion of London’s ULEZ to cover it. This appears to have been influential in them holding the seat (albeit by a very slim margin) and they now seem to have concluded that the electorate dislike net zero and will support them if they pursue policies that weaken the case for achieving that goal.
Like so many of his recent decisions, on this issue, on all counts – politically, economically and socially – Rishi Sunak’s wrong again.
The politics of ULEZ and climate change
While London’s ULEZ has attracted much attention, a little bit of digging reveals that several cities up and down the UK are introducing their own ULEZ. Some of them are going further and offering access to scrappage schemes, to encourage drivers to reject heavily polluting cars in favour of alternatives.
It’s proving popular. In a Twitter thread, Robert Colville (director of the Centre for Policy Studies, former Daily Telegraph journalist and no ‘raging leftie’) shows Conservative voters want policies on dealing with climate issues (as long as they aren’t financially punitive). Financial Times’ chief data reporter John Burn-Murdoch also cites evidence that people in Britain want their politicians to do much more to counter the threats a changing climate poses.
These data are supported by official government statistics which show that over 70% of adults are concerned about the environment. It makes no sense therefore to adopt an argument specific to one constituency and assume it applies across the whole country.
The economic argument
Then there’s the economic argument. A major complaint about moving to a low or zero-carbon society is the cost. Now there’s a point to be made about the lack of infrastructure, which needs political will and a coherent economic strategy to deliver it. As Torsten Bell (CEO of the Resolution Foundation) points out, this is lacking in the UK.
But it’s a cost that must be accepted. China has taken the issue of decarbonising seriously, investing hugely in solar infrastructure capacity. In the first six months of this year alone, output totalled 2.67 billion kwh. Even if you think China’s politics obnoxious, that’s impressive – and it’s clearly silly to continue arguing that the UK can’t do anything meaningful while the big polluters (like China) keep polluting when this is their response.
A response like this in the UK will only be possible if the country invests in improving the National Grid and accelerating the building of wind and solar farms, especially on-shore. The scale of the challenge was laid out at the recent Future of Britain Conference. Climate and energy advisor Tone Langeren spoke about “a decade of electrification”, driven by investment in renewables. Currently this sector is already generating approximately half the electricity the UK needs, which shows how much progress has already been made.
But the Conservatives reject this investment in favour of supporting fossil fuels. In Conservative-run Lincolnshire, two solar farms have been thrown out by a local council, while the county council approved a new oil drilling project. Economically, this looks like nonsense. Carbon Brief shows that it can take around 20 years for new oil and gas supply to come on stream while commercial solar farms can be up and generating in around a year.
It’s also nonsense to claim that it makes more sense to produce our own rather than import it. Ciaran Jenkins showed on Channel Four that the amount produced will make little or no difference, while you have to query Sunak’s logic that importing our fuel from the other side of the world is damaging to the environment when the CPTPP deal is all about importing everything else from the other side of the world.
The Conservatives’ attitudes to net zero prove they are increasingly indifferent to the social costs of their position. Any form of publicly-expressed concern has criminalised protestors such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. Whether you agree with this approach or not, it’s badly judged, attracting sympathy for those protesting as much as condemnation and may yet lead to demonstrators getting seriously injured. Sunak’s declaration that ‘he’s on the side of the motorist’ is also pointlessly divisive; this is not an argument about which side you’re on, it’s an argument about the conditions in which we all live. The Conservatives are losing that argument which will now be front and centre of the news as the next general election approaches.
And the thing is, people are making up their own minds. Sales of electric cars are rising fast – up 16.6% in 2022 and already up 32% this year compared with last. After much thought over whether it was worth it, last November I bought an EV to replace my 13-year old diesel, which I was uneasy about keeping given what is now known about the amount of pollution diesels produce and since most of my driving is around my home city of Lincoln.
But all the research I did suggested it would be. So far, I’m happy. Fuel costs have been modest (an average of £21.55 on charging a month) and public charger availability (with on-street parking, I rely on them) hasn’t yet been a problem, either locally or on a long distance drive. I’ve noticed too, that I’m not alone. Lincoln is not a rich place but since I took delivery of the car, I’ve noticed increasing numbers of EVs on the city’s roads. Whatever Sunak says about extracting oil and gas from the North Sea, people increasingly appear to think the way I do.
It’s not easy being green but we have to try
There’s a clear message in all of this. Whether or not we like it, if we’re to have a habitable planet for our children to live on, it’s likely to cost us more and our behaviour will have to change. This government could make it easier for us if it chose to but at the moment, Sunak’s approach is wrong, wrong, wrong. If it doesn’t alter, then voters will make him pay.