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Former UK climate chief talks about country’s lost ambitions

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Former UK climate chief talks about country's lost ambitions

The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems like a really pivotal moment in this narrative. In the autumn of 2022, UK energy prices were skyrocketing and yet the answer of Liz Truss, Prime Minister at the time, was to redouble oil and gas exploration and refuse to ask people to reduce your energy consumption. It was the absolute opposite approach to that of many European nations facing the same problem.

At the time [the invasion] It happened, it was obviously a genuine crisis and I thought the climate was going to drop down the priority list. But in my technocratic mind, I also thought this was going to create the incentive to move away from high-carbon fuels; If you want to know what the world is like with a high carbon price, we’re about to find out.

What I didn’t expect is that the green arguments came too late because the fossil arguments immediately stepped in to say, “This is why we need a domestic supply of fossil fuels.” That really important argument, acting on it because fossil fuel prices are so volatile and so expensive, kind of slipped through the political ether at the time, and we jumped to a different narrative of what the country needed to do.

The irony of that whole period is that we are running out of oil and gas. Therefore, it will not be a credible long-term strategy to try to extract premium oil and gas licenses in the North Sea.

A year later, Truss’s successor, Rishi Sunak, gave a big speech to roll back key climate policies, notably delaying the 2030 deadline banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

If we look at it purely as a political speech, there were more pro-climate policies than delayed climate policies. It was the one in which he talks about accelerating green investment, for example. And about the electric vehicle [pushing back the 2030 deadline] It wasn’t a big change, since we were already allowing hybrids until 2035.

But what did the country hear? They heard: “Don’t worry, now is not the time to switch to electric vehicles.” It’s hard to tie anything to a single speech, but if you look at the proportion of electric vehicles sold in the UK, it has stagnated since September. I’m sure there are other factors here, but there will be people who think, “Well, maybe I don’t need to buy that electric car now.”

It seems this government has decided to make appealing to motorists a key campaign strategy. In July 2023, the Labor Party narrowly lost the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, and many commentators thought that the Conservative candidate won those elections due to his opposition to the Ultra Low Emission Zone.

What happened there was interesting. The Labor Party also accepted the narrative that ULEZ was the reason they did not win that constituency. Inevitably, in any election there are a number of issues at stake, but if all parties think it is about environmental policy, it is no surprise that it becomes one of the dominant issues in politics after that.

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