Climate and energy have been peripheral issues in the Conservative leadership campaign thus far. In the early stages, only Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman indicated a desire for meaningful change, both calling for a serious reassessment or even suspension of net zero targets. Green activists were alarmed.
Yet even now, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are only offering a programme of dull continuity with Boris Johnson’s green policies. At most, their ideas amount to some window dressing measures: shifting green levies from energy bills to tax bills, and so on. In a few months’ time, however, Badenoch and Braverman may look rather prescient, because the new prime minister will find themselves facing an energy crisis the likes of which we have never seen before.
A wave of civil unrest is spreading across the world, as the costs of climate and environmental policies hit home. The Dutch farmers’ roadblocks and the sacking of Sri Lanka’s presidential palace have been the most prominent upheavals. But there has been unrest in Germany, Spain, Italy, Argentina and a number of African countries too.
While events in the Netherlands – where farmers are protesting government plans that may require them to use less fertiliser and reduce livestock – have barely made it on to the news over here, word does seem to be getting out. It is important that it does. Most people assume that climate and environment policy emerge at the end of some rational decision-making process. The sheer insanity of the Dutch government's plans –or the complete ban on chemical fertilisers initially imposed last year in Sri Lanka are therefore revelatory: we are in the grip of an irrational race to the bottom. (In case you were wondering, the UK has indicated that it will force farmers to reduce fertiliser use over the coming years, unless by chance they do so voluntarily.)
The energy crisis is probably even more pressing: most of Europe faces a serious possibility of rolling blackouts this winter and even, in a worst-case scenario, people being unable to heat their homes. By October, as the price cap goes up another £1000 (for the average household) and central heating is switched on again, millions of families are going to find themselves unable to pay their bills. Personal finance expert Martin Lewis has warned of a 'cataclysmic' energy crisis, with the real threat of ten million people driven into poverty.
One indication of how bad things are has come from Frans Timmermans – the EU's vice-president and the man in charge of the EU green deal, no less – who warns that only a rapid return to fossil fuels will be able to stave off civil unrest and economic disaster. That’s the very point net zero sceptics have been making for years. It’s just a shame that the UK government decided, in a fit of virtue signalling last year, to allow a recently closed coal-fired power station to be blown up rather than mothballed.
This then is the storm that will break over the new prime minister soon after they take office in September. It will be a crisis of historic proportions. And it is hard to imagine a green continuity PM will survive it for very long. On the other hand, a leader who launches a crash programme to restore energy and food security might just get away with it.
In her campaign launch speech, Kemi Badenoch spoke of the need to be truthful. That is certainly the case for climate and energy policy, which has been built on the unfair demonisation of dissenters. But the reality can’t be hidden for much longer. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak must decide if they want to stick with net zero this winter, come what may, or to be the one who frees the economy from the green shackles that are threatening to bring the country to its knees.