Why net zero tsar’s review is a damning indictment of Tory government

Some say Chris Skidmore should have gone further but party loyalist lays bare policy failure across the board

• Sunak accused of harming UK green investment with stop-start policies

Shortly before Christmas, the former energy minister Chris Skidmore announced he would not be standing again as a Conservative MP.

He was one of a slew of Tory MPs to do so, amid party turmoil and plunging opinion polls. But unlike his colleagues, he was in a unique position to make his views felt. During her brief premiership, Liz Truss had effectively made him the UK net zero tsar, tasked with writing a comprehensive review of the country’s progress towards achieving the legally binding target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Now Skidmore, one of the co-authors with Truss and the former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng of the notorious rightwing Britannia Unchained tract, has delivered a stinging broadside against the government he is leaving.

His review argues that the Conservatives have failed on nearly every aspect of net zero policy. Though it is cloaked in polite language, and couched in terms of constructive suggestions rather than hard-hitting new policy demands, there is little in its 320 pages to show the government is on track on any of the wide range of policies needed, on areas from transport to housing, farming to energy generation.

“From a former Tory minster, this is a very significant clear-eyed analysis of what is missing from government policy,” said Polly Billington, the chief executive of UK100, a group of local government leaders that campaigns for climate action. “This is a strong critique of the shortcomings on net zero.”

Across the areas of policy that are key to meeting emissions target, Skidmore records failure after failure. Renewable energy growth has been hampered by government U-turns and dithering, he notes. Homes are leaking heat because of the government’s refusal to enact insulation programmes, and new ones are still being built with no regard to net zero standards. Land use is confused and farmers are not being helped to make low-carbon choices. Transport policy emerges from this critique as more or less an abject mess, though Skidmore skimps on the recommendations he could have made to rectify it.

Yet his review also makes it clear that net zero offers huge economic potential for the UK. Rather than being a cost, as Skidmore’s rightwing colleagues would argue, the review shows in detail how pursuing net zero can bring: green jobs, economic growth to regions in need of levelling-up, health and wellbeing benefits as well as fulfilling the UK’s international climate obligations.

Skidmore has said how deep-delving and broad-ranging this review is. He told the Guardian: “The independent review ‘Mission Zero’ is the largest ever engagement with organisations, business and industry on net zero. As the independent chair, I’ve personally listened to over 1,000 individuals and companies in over 50 roundtables held across the country in every region and devolved nation of the UK. The review is as comprehensive as I could make it – with over 130 recommendations in the 330 page report.”

He added: “Above all, I hope it demonstrates how to implement and deliver on net zero effectively, efficiently and in the most cost effective way by getting on with the transition. As the report explains, net zero is a huge investment opportunity for the UK and I have sought to set out the positive case for why we should be making it easier to invest in sustainable and renewable energy.”

Lord Stern, a global development and climate economist, said the findings pointed to new economic potential for the UK. “[This is] a rigorous, robust, and inclusive review of the evidence on the economics of the UK’s net zero transition, [which argues] convincingly that the transition to a net zero economy is the growth opportunity of the 21st century, and the UK is well-placed to benefit from the increasing demand for net zero goods and services, if it makes the right public and private investments.”

He added: “It highlights the critical importance of government creating an environment that is conducive to this investment by providing clarity, certainty, consistency and continuity of policy. This transition, and the investment and innovation it embodies, are at the core of the UK’s growth story for the coming decade.”

Campaigners have said they would have liked to see a much harder-hitting set of recommendations across the board: some were disappointed, and felt that Skidmore had pulled his punches.

But it would be wrong to under-estimate his work. This is a damning document, by one of the party’s own loyalists, laying bare how badly off track the UK government is on its core climate policy commitment, and how little appetite the government has for seizing the policy and economic opportunities on offer.

Contributors

Fiona Harvey and Helena Horton

The GuardianTramp

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