Who do you think said this at a climate change event in Oxford the other week? “I hope nobody ever buys any ExxonMobil products. No environmentalist should ever do that. They have done more damage to the world than any other company.”
Someone from Greenpeace? Extinction Rebellion? The Green party? No. Those words came from Lord Deben, or John Gummer as he is better known, a former Tory cabinet minister and one-time Conservative party chair.
For the past decade, Gummer has chaired the Climate Change Committee, an independent body that marks the government’s climate homework. As his term nears an end, he thinks it is time to be more “disruptive”, as he recently told a forum held by Oxford university’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (where I am a fellow).
Gummer had just written to the UK head of ExxonMobil, plus the chair of Shell, to question parts of their plans for new fossil fuel developments. Business executives bear personal responsibility for decisions that affect the climate, he said, and in the worst cases, “we have to shame them”.
His words are a crisp reminder of how seriously prominent members of Britain’s Conservative party take the climate threat — and what this means for their new prime minister.
In her first chaotic weeks in office, Liz Truss has taken steps that have rattled those Tories who have been rightly pleased that their party has been a climate leader among the global centre-right.
Some of these decisions — lifting the ban on fracking and accelerating North Sea oil and gas production — had been telegraphed during the leadership race. Likewise, it was not a total surprise to see her put her ally Jacob Rees-Mogg, an MP who has previously questioned how much rising CO₂ levels affect the climate, in charge of the department responsible for climate strategy.
What almost no one saw coming though was the decision to order a review of how the UK’s net zero commitments are delivered. The move has been billed as an effort to ensure this delivery is “pro-business and pro-growth” as the war in Ukraine spurs soaring energy prices and inflation. But other countries facing the same pressures are not formally reviewing the delivery of such a fundamental climate goal.
And while the inquiry is being led by a staunch net zero advocate, MP Chris Skidmore, who says it “100 per cent” won’t lead to the goal being delayed or ditched, it will still have consequences for the very sectors it is supposed to benefit.
“Waiting several months for the review’s conclusion will push back the publication of the UK’s green finance strategy into 2023,” says Kate Levick, co-head of a secretariat to the UK’s Transition Plan Taskforce.
That strategy is an important plank in the government’s plan to make Britain a net zero financial centre. No wonder the very existence of the review is unsettling, not least since candidate Truss promised to “double down” on the drive for net zero and build on her party’s “proud history of leadership on the environment”.
It is worth remembering some of that history to grasp the scale of her more recent moves, which British voters have had virtually no say on.
Under David Cameron, Tory MPs backed Tony Blair’s groundbreaking 2008 Climate Change Act setting emission targets in law. In government, Cameron approved a phaseout of coal-fired power plants and oversaw policies that made the UK an offshore wind giant.
In 2019, the UK became the first major economy to put a 2050 net zero target in law under Theresa May. Her successor Boris Johnson won the 2019 election with a party manifesto that promised to deliver on the net zero goal and “lead the global fight against climate change”.
His government brought forward a ban on new petrol car sales to 2030, five years earlier than planned, and committed to cutting the UK’s emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, years ahead of the previous target. It also published a 135-page Treasury net zero review that found an orderly green transition could produce more benefits, such as lower household costs, than a fossil-fuelled economy.
And it drew up a 368-page net zero strategy which, as Gummer’s climate committee said this year, had much to recommend it, though it still needed a lot of work on the thing that matters most: implementation.
Truss’s review is due to report by the end of December. Let’s hope it is worth the cost of waiting even longer for action on a threat that grows more evident every year.