A Heated Debate: How Johnson’s Replacement Frontrunners Plan to Respond to the Climate Emergency

Estelle Sutherland | Europe and Eurasia Fellow

Image credit: Deep Rajwat

Recent bouts of extreme weather events across Europe have acted as a stark reminder of the need for immediate climate action across the globe. On 19th July 2022, the United Kingdom (UK) sweltered through its hottest temperatures on record, reaching a maximum of 40.3 degrees Celsius. Citizens of southern Europe also suffered extreme weather events, with several wildfires burning across France, Portugal, and Spain. The fallout of these weather events was severe; estimates place the death toll of this heatwave at above 1,500 across Europe.


Unsurprisingly, many have identified the nexus between this extreme weather and the effects of global climate change. For many Europeans, effective action by leaders in the face of this climate emergency is now, more than ever, imperative to mitigate the rise of extreme weather events. In the UK, particular attention has been placed on the two favourites competing to replace Tory leader Boris Johnson: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.


Following Johnson’s forced resignation in early July, rivals Truss and Sunak are frontrunners to secure the position of Prime Minister, with each candidate hotly debating their proposed policy line. When scrutinised regarding their prospective climate policies, both candidates committed to reaching a net zero target by 2050. However, a deep dive into each candidate’s environmental policy reveals that neither leader has truly committed to tangible strategies to combat this crisis.


What is Liz Truss’ response to the climate emergency?


Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’ candidacy is underpinned by her economic policies, which include a reversal of the increase to National Insurance and abandoning planned increases to corporate taxes. Truss’ history as Environmental Secretary from 2014 to 2016 is telling. In 2014, Truss cut subsidies for solar farms, terming solar panels a “blight” to the landscape and arguing that the impugned acreage would be best suited for agricultural purposes.


More recently, Truss has spoken out in support of hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, as it’s more commonly known – positing this route as a solution for the energy crisis facing the UK. Fracking involves drilling into the earth in order to release trapped gas and oil. This practice remains controversial due to its harmful effects on the environment, which include excessive water use and terrain disturbances.

Finally, Truss is fronting her campaign with a promise to suspend the so-called ‘green levy’. This levy, which is incorporated into energy bills, is currently designed to finance environmental projects. Truss has argued that removing this levy would lower living costs in the face of rising energy costs. On review, it appears that Truss has committed to short term and often damaging solutions to emerging issues, and, in doing so, has failed to invest in suitable long-term management of environmental issues.


How does Rishi Sunak propose to address the climate emergency?


Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has spearheaded his leadership campaign with promises to curb inflation and cut basic income tax rates. Similarly to Truss, Sunak appears to place little, if any, emphasis on climate change strategy. When recently asked about his environmental policies, Sunak failed to provide any semblance of a workable solution to the climate emergency. He referred to offshore wind energy and low energy efficiency schemes for housing, however remained adamant that this would not “mean neglecting our energy security”.


When asked what Britons could be doing to combat climate change, Sunak provided an equally lacklustre response, citing a reduction of energy usage, recycling, and reliance on innovation as key solutions. It seems that Sunak does not view climate change as an issue to be addressed by government, instead resting this crisis in the hands of innovators and researchers.


In July, Sunak announced his commitment to so-called ‘energy sovereignty’ by 2045, a pledge which he intends to enshrine in new legislation. This plan is set to be overseen by a re-established Department of Energy. The announcement came in response to energy supply issues widespread across the UK as a consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet this announcement was coupled with Sunak’s reiteration that the current bans on onshore windfarms in England would remain. Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Justice, Women, and Equalities, was critical of this move, describing Sunak as “…completely out of touch with reality”. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile Sunak’s commitment to an independent energy source with his resistance to renewable energy, particularly onshore energy schemes. Once again, it is apparent that this Conservative candidate has failed to commit to any workable long-term solutions, preferring instead to shift the burden to third parties.


In light of these recent extreme weather events, it is worth remaining critical of potential leaders who will shape Europe’s immediate response to the ongoing climate emergency. It is clear that neither Truss nor Sunak are sufficiently prepared to meet this challenge. Of particular concern is their sustained opposition to forms of renewable energy as well as their failure to commit to long-term solutions to the climate crisis. As such, the UK’s Conservative Party must take considerable steps to reassess their priorities if they wish to meet the pressing needs of Britons faced with increasingly dangerous temperatures.


Estelle Sutherland is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.