- Written by Laura Kuenssberg
- Sunday host with Laura Kuenssberg
Politics also has fashions: what's in and what's out. It wasn't that long ago that world leaders were clamoring to be photographed with celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Stella McCartney and Emma Watson at the huge COP26 climate conference in Glasgow hosted by Boris Johnson.
At the time, it was fashionable to be green — being at the COP in 2021 was the political equivalent of the front row at Fashion Week. But with Labor backing away from its massive £28bn commitment this week, the Conservatives changing tack and rumors of dropping the so-called “boiler tax”, there is no doubt that trends have changed.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took the first steps in September. It has not done away with the government's green commitments, but it has slowed the pace of existing plans.
Some Conservatives were pleased that he responded to some voters' concerns about the cost of going green, most notably extending the ultra-low emissions zone beyond London. Other Conservatives were angry that it sent a message that the environment was less important, and that anger has only worsened since then, with former minister Chris Skidmore resigning as an MP.
But this week it's the turn of the Labor leadership, finally scrapping its pledge to spend £28bn a year to help the country go green.
Without adding a lot of coverage around this decision, it shows above all that Labor wants to reassure voters that it will be careful with their money more than anything else.
It is worth noting that this week was the deadline for Labour's top team to submit their manifesto plans to Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves.
The decision was finally taken, after weeks of Tory taunts, when the amounts actually had to be increased. Alongside its statement, Labor will publish a “gray book” that will set out its precise spending plans.
As the election approaches, the view at the top is that every line of this calculation must be accurate.
Former government minister Robert Jenrick is one of those who is vocal about the dangers of the “dangerous green fantasy economy”. But there is a pull from the other direction too.
The previously mentioned Chris Skidmore suggested that “if the UK does not step up, or turn its face against net zero opportunities, it will be an economic disaster.”
In turn, former Labor minister Barry Gardiner accused Sir Keir Starmer of being “economically illiterate and environmentally irresponsible”.
Others are frankly relieved that the large number are gone, with one insider telling me that “it wasn't our finest hour in terms of dealing, but we'll look back and be really grateful that we did it.”
While the political positions of the parties have been changing, what has never budged are the liabilities they face – and not because of star-studded celebrity pressure or road-tight activists.
This is because Theresa May, just before leaving office, changed the law in a very profound way by introducing legislation that would force the UK to reach net zero by 2050.
In 2020, this was followed by another target to reduce emissions by about 70% by 2030.
At the time, the former Prime Minister pushed things so fast that 2050 seemed so far away. The practicalities of how to achieve such an ambition were so vague that MPs (for the most part) happily signed on.
“We thought it was the right thing to do, but we understood that we didn't have all the answers,” one person involved in the decision told me this week. “It was kind of like… When JFK said we would land a man on the moon At the end of the contract. “He had no idea how to do it but it was a clear ambition.”
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Despite the changing political sentiment, the clear ambition and commitment have already had a significant impact on what the government actually does.
One climate leader points to the package for clean steel in Port Talbot, or new laws on electric cars, for example, but adds that the government is “green silent” – taking action but downplaying it because it “doesn’t want any coverage from it”.
There is a clear feeling in the industry that politicians have not yet understood the scale of changes they need to make to restart the energy system – the “transition”.
Endless shifts in policy details, or arguments over key numbers, threaten to lose sight of the big picture. But as the Conservatives and Labor grapple with the realities of what large, long-term commitments to net zero would mean, perhaps what we are witnessing is a new phase in this argument.
Polls consistently show that action on climate change is near the top of voters' concerns – third on the More In Common research group's list behind the cost of living and health services, and not just among those on the left or under 40. .
But as we approach the 2050 and 2030 goals, the practical realities of transitioning to a greener economy will hit closer to home.
As one of the architects of Act 2050, a former Conservative Party figure, put it: “We've gotten to the point where it's starting to affect individual families, and it was always going to be politically controversial.”
The public generally wants action, but may not like its effect – or as I was told: “Voters are allowed to be hypocrites – they can say ‘I want you to do more’ but when you do, they say ‘Oh I didn’t mean that’.”
You can be horrified by what's happening to the planet around the world, but don't be too excited to pay thousands for a new boiler at home.
There is a tension between how quickly our two major parties are prepared to act to address climate change and the rules and goals they have set themselves.
But there is impatience in the industry about how much of the money needed to green the economy will come from it.
Our conversations about climate may have become less about emotion and more about economics. The problem is real. Now political arguments are here to stay.
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