So, just how Green is Rishi Sunak?
I’ve never seen political turbulence like it – three UK Prime Ministers in a couple of months. But now Rishi Sunak has taken the helm in the midst of an economic crisis, exacerbated by his predecessor’s bonkers Laffer-on-steroids policies which were firmly rejected by the very markets they were meant to stimulate.
But, how Green is Rishi Sunak?
During his meteoric rise to Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sunak didn’t say very much at all and his budget was stuffed with contradictory financial policies. But at COP26, he announced he wanted to make the UK “the world’s first net-zero financial centre” and how he would “rewire the global financial system fir net-zero” announcing plans sovereign green bonds and corporate climate disclosures.
During the summer Leadership contest, like his opponent Liz Truss, he pledged to meet the country’s Net Zero target, but didn’t say much more until the Conservative Environment Network asked both candidates to expand on their thoughts. While Sunak’s contribution was clearly stronger than Liz Truss’s, citing the Environment Act and low carbon energy, it still included somewhat contradictory elements, in particular pledging to expand North Sea gas production. None of this did him any good as Truss won quite convincingly.
Just weeks later, having replaced Truss after her libertarian Tufton Street dogma came into messy contact with harsh reality, Sunak faced his first big test Prime Minister’s Questions. Up popped the irrepressible Green MP Caroline Lucas to ask him to rule out fracking for gas, which Truss wanted to ‘unleash’. Sunak took everybody by surprise by giving an unequivocal commitment to the moratorium on fracking, bigging up the Environment Act and pledging to meet the COP26 commitments. Lucas grinned and applauded silently.
But then on to the forthcoming COP27. Truss had not only ruled out attending, but had reportedly blocked King Charles from turning up either. On taking up the Premiership, Sunak said he wouldn’t attend either, but instead he and the King would host a Net Zero business summit in London. Sensing a chance to get one over on Sunak (whose resignation led to his own downfall), ex-PM Boris Johnson then suggested he might attend instead. This led to a partial back-pedalling from No10 suggesting that Sunak may attend if he can get the economy stabilised by then.
So, how do you sum all that up?
I would say there are enough positives in Sunak’s record for us to assume he is serious about climate change, but enough contradictions for us to worry he doesn’t fully grasp what needs doing. He could provide reassurance by turning up at COP27, but he is clearly concerned about the optics of heading off to an international jamboree with a gaping black hole in the public finances and a cost of living crisis. He probably should have encouraged the King to represent the UK, but it might look too wobbly to u-turn now given the official line was that Buckingham Palace and No10 were in mutual agreement on the issue.
If I were advising him, I would suggest launching a massive Net Zero policy offensive on the run up to the conference to turbocharge the green economy and boost energy efficiency and energy security. After all, it is those policies that will make a real difference. A speech to COP27 via Zoom would not only show international commitment, but avoid both a carbon intensive return flight and any backlash over being absent during the crisis at home.