The spotlight on energy should be the UK’s opportunity to finally adopt a green agenda that sets a clear path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But Truss’s own pronouncements – more oil drilling, more gas fracking – and many of her cabinet appointments suggest action on net zero could be undermined rather than boosted by her government. As the makeup of her government comes into focus, will it head in the direction environmentalists say the UK urgently needs to travel?
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Squeezing “every last cubic inch of gas” from the North Sea is top of the agenda for Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new business secretary, despite clear advice that increasing gas production will do nothing to ease prices for consumers. Equally concerning for green advocates, Rees-Mogg has long voiced climate scepticism and spoken against the net zero target.
However, Truss’s appointment of Graham Stuart as junior minister for climate change struck a different note. Stuart was one of the leading voices urging Theresa May to enshrine the net zero target in law and has long been involved in the Globe group of legislators who push for laws mandating climate action to be passed by national parliaments.
“His appointment is very positive, as is the fact that he will attend cabinet,” said one green Tory adviser. “That’s moving in the right direction.”
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
“Another fucking Defra secretary who hasn’t got a pair of wellies,” was the gruff response of one farmer who sits on a Natural England regional board to the appointment of Ranil Jayawardena to the role of secretary of state for environment, farming and rural affairs. Truss took the top job at Defra in 2014.
Jayawardena, who is said to have asked for the Defra job, is the youngest secretary of state in the new cabinet. He has little record on green issues, though he was president of the all-party parliamentary group on endangered species, which has cheered wildlife campaigners.
Farmers are more alarmed by his background as a trade minister, cutting deals with overseas governments that campaigners say sidelined animal welfare and food quality concerns in favour of cheaper imports. He will also have to tackle the pressing issue of sewage in our rivers, which has enraged the public, and air quality concerns. Under the Environment Act, decisions on post-Brexit regulations for air quality standards must be made this autumn.
Shaun Spiers, the executive director of the Green Alliance thinktank, said Jayawardena, as a committed Brexiter, should see that the greatest opportunity for a Brexit dividend lay in the “green Brexit” promised by the former Defra secretary Michael Gove. “Otherwise, what was the point of leaving the EU?” he asked.
Under Rishi Sunak, the Treasury acquired a reputation for blocking any green initiatives that required public spending. Interestingly, the proposer of many of those initiatives was Kwasi Kwarteng, the former business secretary, now chancellor of the exchequer.
When he entered the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in 2019, Kwarteng was known as a free marketeer, but colleagues say he underwent a conversion at BEIS, becoming convinced of the need for intervention and the potential for clean energy. Spiers said: “I heard Kwarteng say that all his instincts were free market, but the more he understood of energy policy, the more he understood the need for intervention.”
He was seen as “extremely supportive” of renewables, says one renewable industry insider, so his appointment is viewed with relief by investors, as Truss spoke out against solar farms and vowed to keep regulatory barriers to onshore wind during her campaign.
He may also be willing to set up an insulation programme because, says Sam Hall of the Conservative Environment Network, under Truss’s plans for an energy bill cap, the Treasury is “on the hook” for the rising cost of energy. The more energy that can be saved by consumers, the lower the cost to the public purse of the price cap policy, giving HMT for the first time an incentive to invest in demand reduction.
Alok Sharma, the cabinet minister who chaired Cop26, retains that position as the UK presidency ends in November when Egypt will take on the role of president of the UN talks. Sharma will spend those weeks in close negotiations with leading countries, trying to hold together the fragile coalition that reached agreement at Cop26.
During the leadership campaign, Sharma said he might resign if the new leader failed to show sufficient commitment to net zero and climate action. Truss has said she intends to follow policies that would reassure him.
Truss promises to be a very different prime minister to her predecessor, tightly disciplined and with no doubt over who is in control.
Ministers will be on a close rein when they make any policy decisions and the tone will be set from the top, according to the environmentalist Tom Burke, the co-founder of the E3G thinktank. He said: “She’s going to run a tight ship, with political control. Cabinet ministers will have less room to wander off on their own to influence policy.”
The peopling of Downing Street with advisers from “Tufton Street” – a collective name for rightwing, free-market, low-tax thinktanks, including figures from the Taxpayers Alliance and the Institute for Economic Affairs – means that any minister with a bent for interventionist policies will have a struggle, said Burke.
Boris Johnson was seen by green Tories as their champion, which led to strong rhetoric on net zero if not always action. Truss has shown she will take a strikingly different view.
Joshua Marks, of the Bright Blue thinktank, is mildly optimistic: “It’s a mixed bag [of early measures and appointments by Truss]. There is not a clear direction, there are positive and negative signs. But net zero ties in with so many pressing concerns, such as the cost of living this winter and next winter, so the government must recognise that solving this crisis is not possible without reducing energy consumption and going for renewables.”
Burke is more gloomy. “It just looks like Liz Truss is going to take us in the wrong direction. There is a massive gulf between what the public wants from the government – action on climate change, and on the cost of living, which requires investment in energy efficiency – and the direction Liz Truss appears to be taking.”