After a torrid summer of extreme heat, drought and raw sewage on the beaches, forming a suitable background to two months of political brawling, the hard-fought campaign to be the next prime minister of the UK finally ended this week. Liz Truss, the former foreign secretary, took up residence in Downing Street on Tuesday.
Truss is a former environment secretary, but her record in the post from 2014 to 2016 has not inspired confidence among green campaigners. The former Shell executive cut funding while in charge of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which contributed to the overwhelming of the UK’s waterways and beaches this summer with floods of untreated sewage.
That sewage appeared as an alarmingly real metaphor for the UK’s political scene. Boris Johnson, prime minister from summer 2019 until he was brought down by his own messy mistakes in July, was at least thought to have genuinely green instincts and a commitment to environmental causes, including the UK’s target for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Truss – who was appointed after a vote among the 160,000 or so members of the ruling Conservative party, rather than a general election – is known for her free-market convictions. During her campaign, she rejected calls to deal with the growing cost of living crisis by helping consumers with their bills, but made a striking U-turn in the later stages by agreeing to cap energy bills for domestic consumers.
That will be paid for from the government’s coffers, rather than the fossil fuel industry, however – and she has rejected calls to expand the windfall tax on energy companies.
Truss also caused consternation by appointing Jacob Rees-Mogg, a prominent right-winger, Brexiter and climate sceptic, as secretary of state in charge of business and energy. Like the new PM, he is firmly in favour of new oil and gas drilling, expanding existing fossil fuel production from the North Sea, and fracking. He has spoken out against windfarms, and Truss spoke out against solar farms during her campaign, which has left renewable energy advocates rattled.
Fracking appears to be a top priority for Truss, with the lifting of the moratorium on shale drilling one of the centrepieces of her energy strategy, unveiled on Thursday. This is quite a turnaround for her new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. Only in February, when he was business secretary, he tweeted that fracking would “not materially affect the wholesale market price [for gas] … UK producers won’t sell shale gas to UK consumers below the market price. They’re not charities.”
The chiefs of the UK’s independent statutory advisers on the climate, the Committee on Climate Change, and the National Infrastructure Commission took the unprecedented step of writing a joint letter to Truss this week. They advised firmly that expanding UK gas production would have little impact on gas prices, and the way to bring down energy bills was instead to reduce demand, particularly through a programme of home insulation. The UK has lacked a programme for insulating its draughty houses – the leakiest in western Europe – since the demise of a botched scheme last year.
What Truss does on climate will matter not just for the UK. As one of the G7 countries, the UK carries a heavy responsibility for action, and as host of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, showed a willingness to take a lead on the world stage. Alok Sharma, the cabinet minister who presided over Cop26, will stay in post and remains officially Cop president until Egypt takes the reins of the global talks at Cop27 this November.
Truss takes office at a time of international crises over energy, food and the cost-of-living, and a vital moment for the world’s efforts to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures, as agreed at Cop26. She has officially committed her government to meeting the UK’s legally binding target of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But the question now is whether she intends to bring forward the policies needed to actually meet that goal.
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