Whoever succeeds Boris Johnson as UK prime minister, whether from the extreme right wing of the Tory party or tacking to the centre, is likely to be a disappointment to environmental campaigners.
Although Johnson’s record in government on environmental policies was patchy at best, he was widely viewed as the prime champion of climate action and green issues within government. He oversaw the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow; three vital pieces of environmental legislation in the environment bill, agriculture bill and fisheries bill; and the net zero strategy.
His actions may at times have fallen short, but even die hard green campaigners acknowledge that his rhetoric at least was usually green.
In that, he was largely alone in his cabinet. Zac Goldsmith, the climate minister who was elevated to the Lords by Johnson, tweeted on Wednesday night: “Most of the likely contenders [for leadership] are people who, on the whole, couldn’t give a shit about climate and nature.”
Tom Burke, a veteran government adviser and co-founder of the green thinktank E3G, added: “The environment was seen as a Johnson priority, not a Tory priority.”
Some of the top candidates have a recent track record of opposing or downplaying climate action while in cabinet. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has been at war with No 10 over net zero, kiboshing nearly every policy – from insulation to renewable energy – that could increase the UK’s climate fight. Liz Truss, despite being a foreign secretary, played almost no role at the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow last November, and failed to mention the climate in speeches and meetings with her foreign counterparts.
Yet this is a crucial time for the climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said the world has reached a point of “now or never”: drastic action now could limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, but without that we face irreversible and catastrophic changes.
The next prime minister will shape the UK’s role in ways that will play out over years. This winter, the UK faces soaring gas bills. Insulation would help, but there are no plans for insulating the UK’s draughty households, and though more renewable energy is being built, wind farms still face hurdles in the planning system.
In addition, two vital jobs will soon fall vacant: the chair of the Environment Agency, and the chair of the Committee on Climate Change, a position held by former Conservative environment minister John Gummer. The prime minister can effectively determine both appointments.
A slew of government bills are on hold, but beyond legislation there are also important decisions looming that will have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions for years to come. A decision has been delayed, but must be made soon, on a new coal mine proposed in Cumbria, which Gummer, who is Lord Deben, has said has no justification. The moratorium on fracking could also be lifted, while the windfall tax offers billions of tax giveaways to fossil fuel companies, potentially including frackers.
At this crucial moment, when the stakes have never been higher and with public support clearly in favor of climate action, the rightwing of the Tory party has come out in full flood against net zero. David Frost, hero of Brexit to many on the right, has taken to the media to blame the push for net zero for the energy prices rise, despite the fact that it is fossil fuel prices that have risen, and the clear evidence that renewable energy reduce bills.
Green campaigners point out that the next leader of the Tory party will have to court not just the small group of party members, but also the electorate at large. They warned prospective candidates not to ignore public opinion, which is consistently well over 60% in favor of climate action across a wide range of polls.
Some of the potential leadership candidates and their green credentials
While chancellor, Sunak frequently vetoed moves that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions but incur a cost to the public purse. The green homes grant was a rare example of him allowing funding for such a project, but its administration was botched and it ended in disaster. Since then, no significant new green policies requiring public funding have been allowed. At Cop26, he trumpeted the UK’s funding for climate finance overseas for developing countries, and moves to force banks and other companies to account for their emissions. Greenscore: 2/5
Truss always looked impatient in her two-year stint as environment secretary under David Cameron, giving the firm impression she was eager to move on to something she regarded as meatier. As foreign secretary, she barely played a role in Cop26 last November, the biggest diplomatic gathering on British soil since the second world war, and failed to mention the environment or climate in speeches and meetings with foreign counterparts. She has not yet spoken out against net zero. Greenscore: 1/5
A self-confessed “shy green Tory”, Gove gained the respect of many green campaigners during his stint as environment secretary, when he brought forward a 25-year environment plan and started off several pieces of green legislation, including a new environment act and reforms to agricultural subsidies. During his recent role of him on leveling-up, he counseled against fracking, and prepared to take on housing developers over energy-efficiency standards. Green score: 4/5
Within his constitution, Hunt has supported attempts to stop fossil fuel development, and he has said that bidding for the chance to host Cop26 was a proud moment for him as a foreign secretary. Beyond that, he has said little in public on green issues but joined the Conservative Environment Network earlier this year and is not on the anti-net zero wing. Greenscore: 3/5
On her website, the attorney general proclaims: “I firmly believe in protecting both the UK’s vibrant ecosystem and the natural environment worldwide. Environmental and economic progress are not just compatible: they depend on each other. The government is committed to being the UK’s greenest ever.” Closer examination, however, reveals this as a boilerplate statement repeated by many Tory MPs. She has tried to crack down on climate activists in her legal post by Ella, putting injunctions on Insulate Britain protesters. Greenscore: 1/5
The MP for Bromsgrove says he has “gone on a journey” when it comes to climate and biodiversity, but that these are now among his passions. He has called for biodiversity to be included in GDP and, although he is popular with some of the more rightwing Conservatives, he has said that being a free marketeer does not need to be at odds with strong environmental policies. He also wants a new international body to encourage companies to fund and implement green measures. He has also not been afraid to call out those who do not care about nature, including Donald Trump, and is understood to be considering an intervention on climate policy in the near future. Green score: 3.5/5
Brexiter Baker revealed to the Guardian that he was considering standing on a platform including scrapping green policies from farming subsidies that prioritize nature to the push for solar and wind power, and wants gas and nuclear power to be classed as green. He has said telling children about the climate crisis is “child abuse”. He supports fracking, is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate-sceptic thinktank, and is co-founder of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Tory MPs, accused of trying to make the climate a “culture war” issue. Green score: 0/5