The UK Conservative Party has been in something of a civil war as it seeks to select its new leader and the nation’s prime minister. Despite the three frontrunners — Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt — all committing to the target of net zero by 2050, there has been a disturbing lack of even lukewarm support for environmentalism beyond this. This is evidenced by the pledges made around green energy levies, with Truss calling for a ‘temporary moratorium’ and Mordaunt asking for them to be scrapped altogether, placing the funding for solar and wind that they support under threat. Whilst Sunak hasn’t made the same commitment, his lack of support for green spending in the Treasury, coupled with his pledge to ban new onshore wind farms, doesn’t paint a particularly pretty picture for the future of Britain’s climate targets.

The Reluctant Environmentalists

So why do the Conservatives seem so reluctant to prioritise the green transition? The answer is simple: Conservative Party members don’t care about global warming. With just 4 per cent of party members putting net zero as a priority, there’s little incentive for leadership contenders — especially the running two — to prioritise environmental pledges over say tax cuts, which has been the focus of the campaign thus far. Meanwhile, what little time is spent on green policies has revolved around regressive moves, with Lord Frost and Ian Duncan Smith, two of Truss’ chief backers, criticising the nation’s ban on fracking and calling for more North Sea gas.

Interestingly, several leading businesses have called on the government to stick to its emissions target, claiming that, with 56,000 new jobs created in the green industry over the last year and a half, abandoning climate goals would put job creation at risk. Again, the reality is that with almost 40 per cent of the party’s members over 65 and nearly 60 per cent over 50, it’s no surprise that many prefer the conversation to be centred on tax reduction and deregulation — the Tory go-to talking points since the days of Thatcher.

A Climate-Pensive Public

The problem the Conservatives have is that these priorities no longer reflect the concerns of the entire nation. YouGov has found that nearly 70 per cent of Britons don’t believe that the climate crisis is over-exaggerated by scientists. In fact, the party knows how prominent climate change is in voters’ minds as Tories have themselves played on this. Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, pledged to make Teesside the UK’s first ‘net zero industrial cluster by 2030’ during his re-election bid last year. With such climate advocacy, he was able to win another term with a landslide 73 per cent of the vote; significant, given his narrow win of around 2,000 votes in 2017.

Of course, it’s no surprise that the public is becoming more and more concerned with climate change. London was ablaze with hundreds of firefighters struggling against the flames as the country reached a record high of 40C this summer. Whilst many have branded the health warnings as ‘snowflake culture,’ the reality is that Britain’s infrastructure is not built for 40C heat, as the melting roads, buckling rails and burning homes evidence. As such, the dealignment on priorities between Conservative members and the public doesn’t bode well for a party seeking another term in government at the next election. This isn’t just some prophetic warning. Australia’s recent federal election laid the case bare.

Paying Attention to Australia

Despite formally signing up to the net zero 2050 pledge at COP26, the governing centre-right Liberal-National Coalition’s lack of credible policies to reach it and an unambitious target for 2030 triggered the surge for teal independents at the 2022 federal election. The independents, in turn, pledged to almost double the government’s 2030 target.

The backlash against climate inaction in Australia was felt heavily in city suburbs, with voters often assuming Liberal seats. Here the independents that fought for stricter emissions reduction, named teal independents, took six of such safe Liberal seats. Overall, the results showed the Coalition losing nearly a quarter of their seats and gains being made by the opposition parties including Labor, Greens and teal independents to give Labor a majority of three. The election was appropriately dubbed a ‘Greenslide,’ with the Greens themselves increasing their primary vote to 12 per cent.

We can already see the Conservatives mirroring the mistakes of the Coalition government. Even before a more climate-sceptic individual has taken over, the government has been told by the Climate Change Committee that it’s falling behind on delivering its targets; noting, ‘major policy failures.’

Will the UK experience the same ‘Greenslide’ at the next general election? Probably not. However, the swing towards greener parties, especially in less rural areas, is a definite risk for the next leader should they water down green goals and commitments. The think-tank Onward has found that 46 per cent of voters would be less likely to vote Conservative if they scrapped the net zero target of 2050. This potentially translates to the loss of 1.3 million voters for the Conservatives.

Bottom line, the Conservatives’ lack of a credible path to net zero by a laid-back government may swing the polls unpredictably towards greener political pastures.

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