It’s disappointing that climate change is still being used as a political gaming chip, but the long-term business case for action wins out. Anthony Mayall, Chief Commercial Officer at Sustainable Energy First, explains.

Anthony Mayall Main

To many observers, the UK Government’s latest ‘anti-net zero’ rhetoric is deeply concerning.

A new round of oil and gas licenses, reviews of low emissions zoning and a £500,000 spend on private flights for the Prime Minister in less than a fortnight are hardly signals consistent with net zero commitments.

Add in the ongoing, second legal challenge to the Government’s Net Zero Strategy, and one might reasonably voice fears that a watering down of UK net zero compliance obligations is coming.

The majority of the wider UK business lobby would not support this. With good reason; UK corporates know that net zero is both necessary and a massive opportunity.

Why then the contradictory messaging from the Government, in the same year as record global temperatures?

A tide shift in Western politics

Something interesting has been happening in Western politics of late. As US elections approach, a new anti-woke, anti-ESG and indeed anti-sustainability agenda has been embraced by US Republicans.

This electioneering pitch is wholeheartedly and unashamedly anti-environment. At the recent Republican debate, some candidates went so far as to suggest climate change is a hoax. This is quite a state of affairs in 2023.

In the UK, when the Conservatives retained Uxbridge in the recent by-election, there was a sense this happened because of emissions zoning; an environmental policy. Since then, a shift in Rishi Sunak’s stance appears evident in both licensing rounds for North Sea fossils and a general sense that environment, and therefore net zero are on the back foot for political reasons.

It’s a confusing rhetoric for a number of reasons. Firstly, anti-environment stances deliberately distance younger voters who are statistically becoming a more important voting demographic. Secondly, short term anti-environment policies distance business leaders who crave long term certainty, to enable confident financial forecasting and investment.

CNN describes the vexed political scenario thus: ‘After a decade of cross-party consensus on tackling the climate crisis, experts fear that Sunak has identified green policies as a new wedge issue that could help reverse his party’s sagging fortunes.

‘Sunak said he wants to “max out” oil and gas developments in Britain’s North Sea, announcing an expansion in drilling for the fossil fuels that environmental groups have condemned.

‘The move followed a proclamation from Sunak to Britain’s drivers, in the Telegraph newspaper, that he was “on their side,” as he ordered a review of “anti-motorist” low-traffic neighbourhoods created to improve urban air quality.’

CNN’s is one voice alone, but plenty of wider analysis agrees that swerving on environment from the existing UK administration may be politically driven, and doesn’t make real world sense.

Why UK business, and net zero, will emerge stronger

Whilst it might not seem an immediate win, the result of any political culture wars on environment will likely be to benefit business.

Let’s elaborate. In a New Statesman poll, 82 per cent said that climate change had mattered personally to them in the last month. But, despite Rishi Sunak’s insistence that the Government will still cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, only a little more than a third of respondents (35 per cent) said they believed he was committed to the UK’s environmental targets.

The issue is; the more environment becomes a political toy, and the louder the noise, the more stridently voters, both business and public, will push for positive environmental policies from both the left and right of Westminster.

That, in turn, leads to a deeper embedding of green thinking and a deeper position for business to profit and do good on green terms.

Newly licensed North Sea oil fields can’t generate anything for years, in some cases decades. But licensing them in the first place highlights issues with weak environment policy and drives votes towards tougher, not weaker net zero approaches.

As Channel Four News points out; ‘According to the UK Government’s statutory advisors, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), newly issued oil and gas licenses take around 28 years to begin producing — so any new oil and gas fields wouldn’t have an effect for decades.

‘But in this time the UK will have more electric cars, have more electric heat pumps for heating homes and may have more zero-carbon power sources like renewable energy and nuclear. If that’s the case, we wouldn’t need that extra fossil fuel production — our energy status would be secured by other means.’

New licensing hastens political awareness of the green agenda, while pushing a tech that can’t win out. All that happens, ultimately, is a stronger coalition of UK minds up and down the country in favour of green business.

The endgame

Ultimately, the UK Government’s recent, confusing green rhetoric proves a single point. Environment can be used as a political tool, but it means so much more; in the UK at least, it’s too well embedded and mainstreamed.

Any parties that try to swerve in search of short term votes appear confused, lost and in self-denial, given that in the case of the existing administration they themselves wrote the net zero policies they are now undermining.

Sustainability done well makes good business sense – commercially, socially and environmentally – thus we expect that we and other businesses will press-on, irrespective of the blunderings of politicians. The oldest businesses still in existence are over 1,400 years old. Compare this to the longest serving Prime Minister in the last 100 years, who lasted 11 years.

Businesses and voters will go on with the important work of growing both learning, understanding and action on tomorrow’s greener UK. Any contradictions at governmental level only serve to highlight the true seriousness with which the huge majority of companies, and UK people, treat our environment.