Ready for Rishi?

Rishi Sunak has been selected by the Tory party to become the next prime minister. Let's hope he u-turns on the environment.

If Rishi Sunak plans to outlast his predecessor he must abandon runaway deregulation, the attack on nature, solve the cost of living and climate crises.

Rishi Sunak has today been selected to succeed Liz Truss as leader of the Conservative Party, making him set to become the country’s next prime minister.

His previous support for the fossil fuel industry and lack of climate ambition in his former role as chancellor raises serious questions about his commitment to meeting the UK’s climate goals and rolling out the measures that will ease the cost of living crisis, warns Friends of the Earth.

The environmental campaign group has identified five key priorities for the new PM which must be top of his agenda in order to restore nature, protect the climate and fix the cost of living crisis.


Kierra Box, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “The dual cost of living and climate crises remain the biggest challenges for the new Prime Minister, but they’re now even more pressing thanks to the political chaos and environmental back-pedalling of recent weeks.

“Rishi Sunak has pledged he’ll deliver on the government’s climate targets. Yet his track record as Chancellor - which saw new North Sea oil and gas fast-tracked, levies for domestic flights cut and a weak windfall tax on profiting fossil fuel companies imposed - suggests otherwise.

“He also backed fracking with community consent during the summer leadership race, but this proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Liz Truss’ premiership."

She added: “If Rishi Sunak plans to outlast his predecessor, he must learn from her mistakes, abandon runaway deregulation and the attack on nature and choose the sensible solutions to the cost of living and climate crises.

"That means saying no to more fossil fuels – including a new coal mine in Cumbria – as well as fixing our heat-leaking homes and boosting investment in cheap, clean popular renewables, which will lower bills and harmful emissions.”

Five ways the new Prime Minister can tackle the energy and climate crises

1. Energy efficiency measures

Insulation is a quick way to reduce the nation’s reliance on increasingly expensive gas.

There are almost five million households in England and Wales without even basic measures such as loft or cavity wall insulation, which means their homes rapidly lose heat and cost more to keep warm. Friends of the Earth published research in August that identified the  almost 9,000 ‘energy crisis hotspots’  across England and Wales.

If Rishi Sunak plans to outlast his predecessor he must abandon runaway deregulation, the attack on nature, solve the cost of living and climate crises.

Energy crisis hotspots are neighbourhoods where energy use is high and typical household income is below the national average. In many cases, energy use is high in these neighbourhoods because homes are poorly insulated, meaning they require more energy to remain warm.

Friends of the Earth is calling on the government to fund a free street by street home insulation programme  – targeted at neighbourhoods most in need. This could slash annual energy bills for many homes by around £1,000 or more after the price cap is lifted.

2. Investing in renewables

The UK has huge renewable energy resources. In addition to the rapid growth in offshore wind already promised by the government, we need to see the same commitment to boosting onshore wind and solar.

The new Prime Minister must keep the Truss government’s pledge to lift the de-facto planning ban on onshore wind. Renewable power can be as much as nine times cheaper than gas and is popular. The limit which restricts the quantity of solar and onshore wind projects that the government will support through its Contract for Difference programme need to be lifted.

3. Saying no to new expensive, polluting fossil fuel development

Fracking: Fracking is incredibly unpopular amongst the public, and as we have seen, this sentiment is widely shared in parliament. Furthermore, it won’t have a meaningful impact on the UK’s energy security or our energy bills. The Conservative’s election manifesto said the party: “will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”. The new Prime Minister needs to confirm that the fracking moratorium is here to stay.

Cumbrian coal mine: Following a public inquiry, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is due to decide on whether to allow planning permission for a highly controversial new coal mine in Cumbria. The decision has already been delayed twice and is now expected “on or before 8 November 2022.”

Friends of the Earth, which was one of the two interested parties that took part in last year’s Public Inquiry, says the case against the mine is overwhelming.

The UK and European market for coking coal is set to rapidly diminish as manufacturers switch to greener steel, while coal from the mine won’t replace Russian imports (the latest statistics say that imports of coking coal from Russia are now zero). The mine will, however, increase carbon emissions, with the government’s climate watchdog (CCC) describing it as “absolutely indefensible”.

Friends of the Earth agrees West Cumbria needs new jobs and is calling for the region to be at the forefront of investment in building a greener future. More jobs would be created through a programme of housing retrofits. More info on the mine is here.

New North Sea gas and oil developments: New gas and oil licenses in the North Sea will do nothing to tackle the cost of living crisis as new licenses take many years to develop. Indeed the Committee on Climate change  says “historically, the timeline from the issuing of an exploration license to production commencing ranges from under a decade to several decades, with an average of around 28 years.”

This means that there’s a strong chance that licences granted this year won’t start producing gas and oil until around 2050 – at the very time the UK is legally committed to becoming Net Zero.

4. Produce a lawful Net Zero Strategy

Following a legal challenge by Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and the Good Law Project, the High Court ruled in July that the current Net Zero Strategy was unlawful because it doesn’t meet the government’s obligations under the Climate Change Act to produce detailed climate policies that show how the carbon budgets will be met. The government is not appealing this judgement.

Under the ruling, the government will have to update its climate strategy to include a quantified account of how its policies will achieve climate targets, based on a realistic assessment of what it expects them to deliver. The government’s own advisors, the Climate Change Committee, said in June 2022 that there were only credible plans for 39% of the emission cuts needed.

The Truss government initiated a review of the Net Zero Strategy, led by Chris Skidmore MP. The court has ruled that the government must lay before parliament a report that complies with its legal obligations no later than 31 March 2023. The new prime minister will need to instruct the new cabinet to come forward with plans to ensure the redrafted Net Zero Strategy is fit for purpose.

5. Restore Nature

Climate change isn’t the only environmental challenge facing the new Prime Minister. A nature recovery strategy is needed that will enable the UK to go to the long delayed international biodiversity talks taking place later this year in Canada, chaired by China. 

The government has made bold statements about protecting 30% of UK land for nature but does not have credible plans to do so. Meanwhile its targets for nature – due to be set under the Environment Act by 31st October – look unlikely to arrive on time, and have been criticised by the new Office for Environmental Protection as insufficient. The UK’s enormous damage to overseas biodiversity through the commodity trade – for example timber and wood products - is also not being sufficiently addressed.

The recent government proposals to overturn planning and environmental rules in new ‘Investment Zones’, remove or radically alter swathes of sensible EU-derived safeguards and undermine habitats protections, constitute a further attack on nature and communities which the new prime minister must urgently reverse.  

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from Friends of the Earth.

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