“It is widely understood by voters in the UK – and judging from polling, by a majority of people around the world – that the next few years offer a final opportunity to prevent climate-linked destruction on an unimaginable scale. Under Boris Johnson, Conservative environment policies were nowhere near ambitious enough. But under Ms Truss, they are already far worse…”
The latest schism to open up in Liz Truss’s cabinet is less surprising than it might have been, had divisions over tax and welfare policies not already emerged. But the decision by the business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to oppose her publicly over solar energy plans is still a dramatic one that leaves her looking even weaker and more exposed. Having previously stressed his support for fracking, and oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, Mr Rees-Mogg used an article in the Guardian to deny that he opposes green energy. While Ms Truss wants to restrict new solar installations on farmland, Mr Rees-Mogg’s deregulatory fervour extends beyond fossil fuels to renewables as well.
Ms Truss’s anti-solar scheme is so ill-judged that all voices raised against it are welcome. But Mr Rees-Mogg’s enthusiasm for new oil and gas means that he must never be mistaken for a friend to green causes. He is right to point out that carbon-intensive imports are just as damaging to the atmosphere as UK-based industries. But while his backing for solar and wind may make him a more consistent free-marketeer than the prime minister – who is against red tape except when it blocks something she dislikes – the risks to the environment from all those like him who champion growth at the expense of nature remain huge.
Renewed enthusiasm for fossil fuel projects is one aspect of this government’s reactionary and dangerous agenda. Two more are the promises to scrap hundreds of environmental regulations governing areas such as water quality (already shockingly poor), and to remove wildlife protections from new low-tax investment zones. The decision to review a post-Brexit farming payments scheme that took six years to set up – and which has already led to enhanced protection for wildlife in pilot areas – offers further proof of the government’s disdain for all things green.
Ms Truss made this explicit when she targeted climate campaigners as part of an “anti-growth coalition”. So far, she shows no sign of paying attention to warnings from senior figures including William Hague that she is on the wrong track. But concern about the government’s new direction is spreading. Ministers are at odds not only with environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace, but also with mass-membership charities beloved of many Tory voters, including the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Paul Miner, from the countryside charity CPRE, described the reversals on fracking and other issues as “a litany of betrayal and broken promises”.
Precisely how the anger prompted by these anti-green policies will manifest itself remains to be seen. Already, charities have called on members to contact MPs, and they will be emboldened by a speech from the Charity Commission’s chair, Orlando Fraser, affirming their right to engage in political activity. With another crunch UN climate conference fast approaching, and a new report from scientists pointing to a further decline in animal populations, conservation groups and their supporters are right to be alarmed.
It is widely understood by voters in the UK – and judging from polling, by a majority of people around the world – that the next few years offer a final opportunity to prevent climate-linked destruction on an unimaginable scale. Under Boris Johnson, Conservative environment policies were nowhere near ambitious enough. But under Ms Truss, they are already far worse. Her hang-the-consequences short-termism would never have won a general election. The Greenpeace activists who interrupted her conference speech were right that voters do not support the policies she has embraced. They and other groups should take heart from the support they have already received. Ministers may not care about the damage that they are causing, but the public does.