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“It’s alarming how little they know”: What are the Tory leadership frontrunners’ climate credentials?

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All Conservative leadership candidates signed up to a manifesto that pledged to reach net zero by 2050.

But as the election to replace Boris Johnson gathers pace candidates are either not mentioning the government’s climate goals or are actively distancing themselves from them.

Or as one analyst put it, some are treating it as “red meat” to throw at net zero sceptic MPs and Conservative party members.

That has prompted concerns among many environmentalists and campaigners that candidates don’t have clear visions on how to tackle the climate and nature crises facing the planet, particularly after the Climate Change Committee published a damning report on the government’s progress on net zero.

“It’s alarming how little these guys know about it [the climate crisis],” said Shaun Spiers, executive director of Green Alliance, a think tank that works to ensure UK political leaders deliver ambitious solutions to global environmental issues.

“I don’t actually think any of them fully understand just how important this is,” he added.

All this is happening as Britain swelters in extreme heat that scientists have said was made more likely and more intense due to human-induced climate change.

So how do the frontrunners’ climate credentials shape up? We look at the top three contenders after MPs voted in the second round of the contest to replace Mr Johnson.

Rishi Sunak - 88 MP votes

Mr Sunak has kept quiet on net zero since launching his leadership campaign.

As chancellor, he has been described as “reasonably good” at marshalling green finance for net zero but has also been accused of blocking green policies that incurred short-term costs.

He rarely mentioned the climate crisis in speeches, and net zero didn’t come across as key to his mission. Ahead of Cop-26, he cut air passenger duty on domestic flights and was accused of distancing himself from a key review on the economics of biodiversity.

“He’s been reasonably good at the aspects of net zero that didn’t require him as chancellor to spend any money,” said Mr Spiers. “But when it came to actually seriously supporting net zero as chancellor he fell short.”

Rishi Sunak arrives at Cop 26 in Glasgow with his green budget box where he led finance day. (Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak arrives at Cop 26 in Glasgow with his green budget box where he led finance day. (Getty Images)

In recent months, he was accused of risking Britain’s reputation as a climate leader by announcing tax relief to encourage energy firms to invest in fossil fuel extraction in the North Sea.

And he “almost always” voted against measures to prevent climate change in parliament, according to the website They Work For You.

But he has not publicly criticised the government’s stance on net zero and at Cop 26, and  pledged to make Britain the ‘world’s first net-zero-aligned financial centre.”

The fact that Chris Skidmore, chair of the Net Zero Support Group, and Anthony Browne, vice-chair of the Environment All Party Parliamentary Group, are backing Mr Sunak is “encouraging”, Mr Spiers added.

The Independent has contacted Mr Sunak’s spokesperson for comment.

Penny Mordaunt - 67 votes

As Penny Mordaunt ticked off the challenges facing Britain in her leadership contest launch speech on Wednesday she didn’t mention the existential climate crisis confronting Britain and the world.

But, unlike some of her rivals, she has indicated her support for the transition to net zero. Writing in The Daily Telegraph on Monday, she said it could generate up to three million green jobs by 2030, and create apprenticeships, new jobs and training opportunities across the UK.

Penny Mordaunt at the launch of her campaign to be Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. (PA)
Penny Mordaunt at the launch of her campaign to be Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. (PA)

But she has also said she would slash VAT on fuel by half. Climate campaigners have previously argued that cutting fuel duty benefits the owners of “gas-guzzling SUVs,” risks putting off drivers from buying electric cars and also does nothing to help people with the cost of public transport.

Like Mr Sunak, Ms Mordaunt generally voted against measures to prevent climate change, according to the website They Work For You, including for ministers to take into account net zero targets on agriculture subsidies.

Last year, she reportedly accepted a £10,000 donation from a leading climate change sceptic and founder of the UK’s influential climate science denial campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation.The Independent has not confirmed this reporting.

“What Penny Mordaunt has said over the years on it [the climate crisis] suggests that she’s kind of reasonably modern and grown up and understands that net zero has got to happen and is good for people,” said Mr Spiers.

In response, Ms Mordaunt said: “I’m committed to the Net Zero by 2050 manifesto pledge and for me, it represents a huge opportunity for jobs and growth. I believe the green economy will be providing millions of new jobs right across our United Kingdom.”

Liz Truss - 50 MP votes

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss pledged on Wednesday to halt green levies on energy bills, in an apparent attempt to woo net zero sceptics in her party.

“I’d have a temporary moratorium on the green energy levy to enable businesses and industry to thrive while looking at the best way of delivering net zero,” Ms Truss told The Spectator.

“This is an example of the evidence-free policy-making they’re [Conservative leadership hopefuls] doing to win the vote,” said Mr Spiers.

Daniel Newport, head of net zero at the Tony Blair Institute, said “reality” would greet the new prime minister on day one.

“They will be told that green levies are now only 5 per cent of bills, much of which goes to supporting poor households, the rest of which is on legally binding contracts,” he wrote on Twitter.

Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, has previously cut solar farm subsidies (Getty Images)
Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, has previously cut solar farm subsidies (Getty Images)

As environment secretary between 2014 and 2016, Ms Truss cut subsidies for solar farms, describing them as “a blight on the landscape”. Later as trade secretary, she and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, decided to “drop both of the climate asks” from the text of the UK-Australia agreement in order to get it “over the line”, according to a leaked email from a senior official.

“She has never shown great enthusiasm for environmental policies,” said Mr Spiers. “She was relatively unwilling to engage with green groups, [and] much more willing to give a speech to a right-wing American think tank than speak to green groups in the UK.”

Mr Spiers said the foreign office was once a “powerhouse of climate diplomacy”, but that under Ms Truss there has been “almost nothing” on this front.

He added, however, the fact that Simon Clarke, the chief financial secretary of the Treasury, who is  “very good” on net zero, is backing her gives him “some hope”.

The Independent has contacted a spokesperson for Ms Truss for comment.

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