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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak: Is It Good News for the Environment?

How could Rishi Sunak’s election influence environmental policy and the U.K.’s approach towards climate change?
Ecology News
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Following the recent appointment of Rishi Sunak as the UK's Prime Minister, some breathed a sigh of relief. While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is certainly no environmentalist (he has almost always voted against government measures to reduce emissions), it would be difficult for him to be any more controversial when it comes to climate issues than Liz Truss.

👉 Will Rishu Sunak's position as the United Kingdom's new Prime Minister breathe hope into the nation when it comes to climate change and environmental policy, or will he fall flat in the fight against climate change?

Who is Rishi Sunak?

Appointed in October 2022, Rishi Sunak is the new Prime Minister for the UK. He comes to the role following the departure of Liz Truss, who previously held the position after replacing Boris Johnson, but was ousted after a short 44 days in office. Liz Truss resigned as Prime Minister a result of excessive backlash to her fiscal conservatism. 

A long-time member of the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak has served as MP for Richmond (York) since 2015. Before being appointed as the leader of the Conservative Party and the UK's new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak previously held the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer (and head of the UK's Treasury) - one of the most senior positions in the UK Government and a position that made him responsible for the UK's economy.

👉 Over his 8 year long stint in politics, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hasn't exactly built up a stellar reputation when it comes to supporting green policies. He's has consistently chosen to vote in line with his party when it comes to environmental issues. And while the Conservative Party recognises climate change as a serious global threat, they have been guilty of occasional displays of denialism.

Yet despite his less than inspiring track record, some are still hopeful that Rishi Sunak can help move the UK Government's climate change policies forward from the back burner and reverse some of the damage inflicted by his predecessor in her short stint as Prime Minister. 

How is Rishi Sunak's approach to climate change different to Liz Truss?

In light of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's less than inspiring environmental voting record, you may be wondering why he's seen as a vast improvement from Liz Truss.

Well, here's why –  while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak probably isn't passionate about reducing emissions, his background differs from Liz Truss. He's seen as a man of science and numbers, and therefore he's much more apt to consider scientific sources than Liz Truss was.

👉 In short, Rishi Sunak may be motivated to take climate change seriously if the numbers show how it could negatively affect other parts of the UK – such as the energy or agriculture sector - or conversely if he's convinced of the benefits that it can bring.

How else is Prime Minister Rishi Sunak different from his predecessor, Liz Truss? 

London Underground

What was Liz Truss' approach to the environment?

The problem with Liz Truss wasn't just her own view on environmental policy, but that some of her team didn't believe that climate change was even a legitimate threat in the first place - Liz chose Jacob Rees-Mogg as her energy secretary, a man who has questioned whether climate change is even caused by human activity!

It was therefore clear from the very start that Liz and her team weren't going to prioritise developing new environmental strategies. In fact, what happened was quite the opposite - she seemed to take every effort to dismantle the Government's existing environmental policies.

Liz Truss made it clear that she was uncertain about the UK's new emission reduction goals in attempts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and even spoke out against solar panels across the UK – claiming that they would prevent the UK from growing their own food and decreasing the UK's reliance on imported produce.

In her brief time as Prime Minister, Liz Truss moved to outlaw the use of solar panels on most farmland, overturned a ban on fracking, and got rid of hundreds of laws and subsidies designed to protect nature.

What approach has Prime Minister Rishi Sunak taken so far?

In his short time as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has demonstrated a more motivated attitude towards tackling climate change. His efforts to create a Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (a new government body) is obviously a step in the right direction.

However, his climate ambitions can't be described as much more than lukewarm at best. When selecting his Cabinet Ministers, Rishi Sunak chose not to keep COP26 President Alok Sharma, and he didn't attend the recent COP27 in person, but instead chose to participate via conference leading some to question his commitment.

Has Rishi Sunak been successful in taking climate action before?

If Rishi Sunak attempts to turn around his previous climate action track record following his election as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak will have to work extra hard – as his previous climate actions as a finance minister don’t do him any favors.

For instance, back in March 2021 – Rishi Sunak made some drastic cuts that prevented the U.K. from being able to isolate homes and ultimately from reducing emissions nationwide. In addition to this, Rishi Sunak also promoted the idea to cut taxes for domestic flights, which ultimately encouraged citizens to travel and create an uptick in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Rishi Sunak also cut the U.K.’s budget to help developing countries, which meant that the U.K. didn’t have the funding to assist lower income nations to implement plans for future sustainability or energy efficiency.  

His track record isn’t great, but could Rishi Sunak change that with his role as Prime Minister of the U.K.?

How does Rishi Sunak plan to help with climate change now?

Plucked from relative obscurity by Boris Johnson to the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer (essentially the UK's finance minister), one might assume that Rishi Sunak's environmental record aligns with the former Prime Minister's and that they're on the same page.

Boris Joshnson, for all his flaws, was a passionate supporter of the climate cause, famously comparing climate change to a doomsday device and warning world leaders at the COP26 summit that the clock is ticking. Unfortunately, Rishi Sunak's approach has been a lot more muted, and at time's he's even voted against the environmental agenda.

Rishi Sunak's voting record probably provides the best clues as to what we can expect from his premiership. And it must be stated that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's environmental voting record doesn't exactly inspire much hope for those who want to see the UK Government reposition itself as a global leader in the fight against climate change.

By looking back over Rishi Sunak's voting record with regards to climate change we can see that he almost always voted against government measures intended to tackle climate change (or simply didn't turn up to vote in parliament). Most strikingly, he previously voted against financial incentives for low-carbon energy generation.
a crowd in a London's street

What about his time as Chancellor?

During his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak didn't perform much better.

For instance, back in March 2021, Rishi Sunak made some drastic cuts that prevented the UK Government from being able to isolate homes and ultimately from reducing emissions nationwide. In addition to this, Rishi Sunak promoted the cutting of taxes for domestic flights, which will ultimately encourage citizens to travel more and create a resulting uptick in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Primarily a man of numbers, Rishi Sunak has prioritised economic considerations often at the expense of the environment. For example, while performing his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he cut the UK's budget to help developing countries, which meant that the UK Government didn't have the funding to assist lower income nations to implement plans for future sustainability or energy efficiency.  

Signs for hope

And yet, it's not all bad news. The Prime Minister has declared his backing of the goal of achieving net zero by 2050 and signed the Conservative Environment Network's Pledge which commits to this target. He also previously pledged to make the UK the "worlds first net zero financial centre" and committed £100 million to the Taskforce on Access to Climate Finance.

However, as is often the case with Rishi Sunak, pragmatism reigns supreme; he's made it clear that achieving net zero can't come at the expense of energy security, signally his support for continued oil and gas extraction.

This aligns with his track record of pushing for deregulation, enabling an increase in oil production in the North Sea. He's also previously stated that he would support controversial fracking where the local communities also back this (though, it's hard to imagine any communities backing the activity!).

Undoubtedly Rishi Sunak's track record is chequered at best, but could his new role as Prime Minister encourage a new, more pro-active stance and a return to the global stage for the UK when it comes to climate change?

How does Rishi Sunak plan to approach climate change as Prime Minister?

Rishi Sunak isn't as opposed to new energy plans across the UK in the same manner as Liz Truss was.

👉 In fact, in light of the crisis in Ukraine he's advocated for new technologies to help make the country less dependent on foreign fossil fuels and has even illustrated future plans to help the UK transition to become energy independent (this will be achieved through investment and the adoption of various measures to help UK households become more energy efficient). 

The upcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy marks a real test for the Prime Minister. The document will define the role of the UK on the world stage for the next decade and will outline the Government's strategic goals for international policy and national security. It's a real opportunity for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take back the reins with regards to the UK's leadership on climate change and rectify his slow start when it comes to environmental action.

If, like the last Integrated Review, the Government sets clear ambitions on climate action it will likely signal the type of domestic and international policy decisions that will follow. It is hoped that some of the recommendations laid out in the Net Zero Review will also be adopted, that further investment into climate change is pledged, and that the Government reinforces its commitment to international climate finance.

Undoubtably, Rishi Sunak has faced numerous challenges in the premiership of his role as Prime Minister. The cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine, and rebellious MPS have inhibited his ability to set out an effective policy platform to parliament. However, with the adoption of the Net Zero Department Rishi Sunak has raised hopes that a more ambitious government climate policy is on the cards. We will see whether this can be translated into a reality with the forthcoming publication of the Integrated Review.

How else is the U.K. against fighting climate change?

Climate change has never been more grave of a problem in the United Kingdom, especially considering the energy crisis happening this last year – where the country has considered resorting to blackouts to keep prices from getting too high or burning through their already sparse reserves of electricity.

👉 And while Rishi Sunak holds the highest position of power in the UK Government, the future of climate change in the United Kingdom isn't all in the hands of Rishi Sunak – the rest of the UK Government also has to be on top of their game to fight against climate change.

The good news is that Government members have already implemented several new plans in an attempt to counteract global warming, for example: the UK Environment Act of 2021Ten Point Plan, their UK Hydrogen Strategy, and the CMA's new guidelines for the UK . Despite the fact that some of these plans are more advanced than others, the Government has clearly shown their dedication to reduce waste, improve recycling measures, reduce emissions, and find new ways to implement renewable energy sources to combat excessive greenhouse gasses in addition to helping to resolve other energy issues such as the infamous energy shortage happening this winter across the UK.  

Looking forward

While the new Prime Minister doesn't have full jurisdiction over the future climate change programs in the UK – the person on the podium can have a huge influence over what priorities are maintained and not.

Rishi Sunak has the power to influence and shape the Government's climate change agenda for years to come. And while he has signalled his intentions to work towards the achievement of net zero, it must also be remembered that Rishi Sunak is first-most a pragmatic man of numbers; his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer and the current cost of living crisis mean that we can expect him to put the economy first, even at the expense of environmental considerations.

However, as the effects of climate change become more and more apparent and the public mood shifts with regards to environmental issues, Sunak's government may find that it can no longer sit back when it comes to climate policy if it want's to be re-elected to parliament. Labour are already starting to position themselves as the more 'green' party, and this is something that could sway future voters.

What about Greenly?

If reading this article about the election of Rishi Sunak and what it means for climate change legislation in the U.K. has made you interested in reducing your carbon emissions to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!
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