Next Tory leader must have clear plan on net zero, says Alok Sharma

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The Guardian

Tory leadership candidates will have to demonstrate on Monday that they support not only the net zero target but a programme of action to fulfil the goal, the leading climate voice in the cabinet has said.

Alok Sharma, the UK cabinet minister who led last year’s Cop26 UN climate summit, will ask each of the five remaining candidates to prove their climate credentials when he chairs green hustings on Monday afternoon in Westminster.

Temperatures are expected to soar as high as 42C (107F) in the UK on Monday, with a national alert in place and experts warning of the potential for thousands of excess deaths.

Sharma said the extreme heat should alert candidates to what was at stake. “Any candidate aspiring to be our next prime minister who doesn’t think we are facing a climate emergency needs to consider the temperatures we are seeing in the UK, across Europe and beyond,” he said. “No one should be in any doubt about how much worse this could get if we do not have a clear plan and continue to press for action during this critical decade.”

“We are already at 1.1C average warming above pre-industrial levels and we can already see the huge environmental, economic and very human costs being experienced across the world,” he added.

He told the Guardian that the five remaining candidates for Tory leadership, and therefore prime minister, must show at Monday’s hustings that they understood the nature of the climate crisis and were prepared to respond with urgency.

He said: “The question that every candidate needs to answer is do they support the manifesto on which we were elected in 2019, which very clearly sets out a commitment to net zero and to green growth, and that they will continue with this particular agenda and this manifesto commitment.”

This would include the commitments made under Boris Johnson and a plan to push forward with renewable energy and decarbonising all sectors of the economy, Sharma made clear.

“I hope every candidate will have read our 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution,” he said. “I hope every candidate will have read the government’s net zero strategy, our British energy security strategy. And I hope when they talk about green levies, they’ll also have understood what the makeup of green levies is.”

Although all of the remaining candidates apart from Kemi Badenoch have endorsed the net zero target, there are doubts over whether they will push forward on the policies needed to achieve that goal. Several have hinted at weakening key policies, such as green levies on energy bills, which Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt said they would scrap, or at holding back on climate action.

Rishi Sunak warned in the televised debate on Sunday night against going “too hard and too fast” on climate action. Tom Tugendhat appeared to pin his hopes on carbon capture and storage, which experts have said can play only a minor role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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Sharma, speaking before the debate, said the green levies helped to reduce bills rather than increase them, and emphasised the urgency of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. “Some candidates have been lukewarm on this issue. And my response is that this is such a vital issue. Net zero is one of the clearest economic trends we have, and that’s reiterated by businesses in the UK and by businesses internationally,” he said.

Net zero was good for the economy, and for the Tories’ electoral prospects, as well as for the planet, Sharma added. “This is about an environmental dividend, but it’s also about an economic dividend, and ultimately an electoral dividend as well,” he said. “If you look at all the polling that is out there, this is an issue that matters to all people, but also matters very much to people who vote Conservative.”

With the UK still holding the presidency of the UN climate talks, until Egypt takes over in November at the Cop27 conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Sharma said it would be “incredibly damaging” for the UK’s international standing if the new prime minister weakened in any way on net zero.

Sharma has also warned that if the final candidate chosen by Tory MPs and Conservative party members does not show clear commitment to pushing forward on net zero policy, he could resign. He said: “Anyone aspiring to lead our country needs to demonstrate that they take this issue incredibly seriously. I want to see candidates very proactively set out their support for a net zero agenda for green growth.”

July 18, 2022 at 05:51PM Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

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