Andrea Leadsom MP famously asked whether climate change was real when she was appointed energy minister in 2015, and said “we have enough wind farms”. This year at the Conservative Party conference she put that question firmly to bed, describing the Net Zero agenda in a fringe meeting as a “massive green industrial revolution under way”. What is more, she indicated that government could take dramatic action, using electric vehicles as an example to show that “if government sets a very hard deadline, business will find a way”.
Leadsom was very much in the mainstream in this conference. In the last decade Conservative conference fringe meetings on energy regularly included party members vibratung with fury at the prospect of onshore wind, and ready to shout down any suggestions of building more. In contrast, this year Net Zero was right across the conference in a huge number of meetings – although less so in Boris Johnson’s speech – and the consistent message was that it was a “core part of the government’s agenda”.
Where the party was coming under pressure was from business and industry, who wanted to be given the tools to move further and faster on Net Zero. Those tools included some long-awaited documents including the Heating and Buildings Strategy and the Treasury’s review of Net Zero costs.
Businesses wanted to be sure that the cross-party political consensus on Net Zero was robust – something that seems largely assured, as it was also threaded through the Labour conference. But to take practical action, they called for policies and routemaps to provide visibility beyond the current government, so they could make investment.
Calls for local action
One way of providing that consistency – and moving into implementation – would devolving more power and more government investment. Mayors from across the country were at the Conservative conference to highlight mature local plans and call for the freedom to deliver them.
Localisation was an area where more joined up thinking was clearly needed. Similar calls to give regions and cities the backiing – and funding – to delover Net Zero plans were made in meetings on local transport, which included electric vehicles. Delivering those local plans could deliver some of the visibility required by business, it was suggested.
The government has localisation in mind in some situations – the Environment Bill was lauded for including a “local nature recovery requirement”, although some might see as a way to simply ease the way for development.
More joined up thinking is clearly needed to bring together heat, energy and transport – and to start considering the built environment. Protestors against onshore wind may have disappeared, but MPs on fringe panels faced warnings that the government would “lose its majority straight away” if it pushed through plans for decarbonisation of home heating without detailed plans for the transition – which, party memebers said, had to include action for middle income homes that may not get financial support to make the change.
With business, local authorities and members in agreement on many aspects of the Net Zero transition, it seems like an open goal for the government. And in delivering low-carbon heat localisation is fundamental, as the likelihood that significant numbers of people will not have a choice between electricity and a low-carbon form of gas has not begun to filter into the public consciousness.
Finally a strong message came through at the Conservative conference as it did at Labour. BEIS is too weak to be the driving force for Net Zero across the economy, especially in the face of Treasury caution. Climate and carbon have to be at the centre of government.