Conservative Party leadership race:  How green is the next PM?

Boris Johnson’s resignation on 7 July sparked the latest Conservative Party leadership race which has now been whittled down to two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Lizz Truss. But what are their green credentials? Is there a gap between what they say about the environment and their voting history?

Following Johnson’s resignation, the backbench 1922 committee set the rules and timetable for selecting the next prime minister. The Conservative Party leadership race started with 11 candidates and after five rounds of voting, we know one of Lizz Truss or Rishi Sunak will be the next to move into Number 10.

Due to the rise in the cost of living, it’s understandable that much of the conversation has been focused on inflation, tax, and the economy as a whole. However, following the UK’s hottest day on record, it seems like now is the time to question the final candidates’ “green credentials”.

Policy and External Affairs Director at CIWM, Lee Marshall, said: “The recent heatwave across the UK and Europe demonstrates that action on climate change and achieving Net Zero must be a key priority for this Government, as it is for CIWM and the resources and waste sector.

“This requires strong leadership at BEIS and Defra and a commitment from the next Prime Minister to put the green agenda at the forefront of the Government’s work.

“In recent times, certain aspects of government policy and decision making suggest that climate change issues have dropped down the policy agenda and the new leader must ensure that they are brought back to the fore and given the necessary consideration to tackle the climate emergency and move the world beyond waste.”

How the next PM could impact climate change and the environment

Any Prime Minister’s policies will of course shape the UK’s trajectory for decades to come. However, possibly more so than ever, the outcome of this leadership election will have a significant impact on UK environment policy at a time of unprecedented change and opportunity.

The next PM’s legacy could be determined by how they approach net zero and just how high “green growth” is on their agenda.

Former PM Theresa May, during her first public speech since Johnson’s resignation at the Aldersgate Group in London, said the net zero transition “should be at the top of the Government’s agenda”. She emphasised that the next PM should view sustainability as a solution to the cost of living crisis, not its cause.

As a member of the Conservative Party, Theresa May will be able to vote and have a say in who will become the next PM. Taken at her word, climate change could be a deciding factor in her vote. However, not every member of Parliament is pro-net zero.

The co-founder of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of 20 MPs, Steve Baker said in an interview: “I genuinely believe that when the full costs of net zero start hitting us, if people have never been given a choice at the ballot box, we could end up with something bigger than the poll tax, certainly bigger than Brexit, because the numbers of people hit by it and their inability to cope will be huge.”

In contrast, the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) called on MPs in the leadership race to publicly commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Both Truss and Sunak have backed the CEN’s five-point pledge card, which calls for a boost to domestic clean energy

Both Truss and Sunak have backed the CEN’s five-point pledge card, which calls for a boost to domestic clean energy; the roll out of home insulation and vehicle charge points; investment in nascent clean energy technologies; continued implementation of the Government’s Environment Act, and support for more sustainable farming practices.

The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, consistently voiced support for green growth, both before and after taking the reins at number 10.

From overseeing the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow to pushing through the agriculture and fisheries bills, and the net zero strategy, it can be argued that the incumbent PM may not have done everything he might have to move the environmental agenda forward, but move it forward he did.

The question now is whether the next PM will carry on where Johnson left off. We know from past experience how a change in world leader can also mean an alteration in green policy. It wasn’t too long ago that former US President Trump announced the country would withdraw from The Paris Agreement.

To answer these questions, we’re going to delve into the green credentials of the two remaining candidates.

Lizz Truss

The current frontrunner Liz Truss has served in several cabinet roles, including as Environment Secretary, between 2014-2016, under then Prime Minister Theresa May. Upon taking up the role she said: “I believe that climate change is happening and I think human beings have contributed to that”.

Despite finishing behind Sunak in the rounds of MP voting that whittled down the eleven candidates down to two, according to a YouGov survey of 725 Conservative party members, Truss is “comfortably ahead” of the former Chancellor, 54% to 35%.

So, what are her green credentials?

During her time as Environment Secretary, Truss cut subsidies to solar farms, claiming that they impeded food production – this is despite documents from her own department suggesting British food security is not being harmed by solar panels in the UK.

Truss has a history of generally voting against measures to prevent climate change, similar to Sunak, which is perhaps reflective of the Government’s policies over the last 12 years of power. For example, Truss has typically voted against financial incentives for low carbon emission electricity generation methods.

In March 2022, while Foreign Secretary, Truss received criticism from 200 UK NGOs over her new international development plans strategy which they said deprioritised health, conflict prevention, and climate change. An open letter signed by the 200 non-governmental organisations, said it would be “short-sighted” to drop such critical issues.

Like Boris Johnson, who is backing Truss to take his place in number 10, Truss is often heard talking a green talk.

At the Conservative Party Hustings on 17 July, Truss said she would attend COP27 and the 15th biodiversity COP. During the hustings, like her rival Sunak, she also said she would keep the current net zero target after being questioned by the founder of the Net Zero Support Group of Conservative MPs, Chris Skidmore.

Truss, in an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson during her campaign, promoted her policy to temporarily remove the ‘green levy’, which is a tax on sources of pollution or carbon emissions, despite FullFact.Org saying that the levies account for under 8% of an average energy bill’s costs. She also suggested increasing the amount of gas being extracted from the North sea during the same interview.

Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak – who secured 137 votes at the final round of voting – seemed heir apparent to Johnson for so long. However, until recently it looked like his rise in popularity had faltered following his Partygate fine for breaking lockdown rules, scrutiny over his wife’s tax affairs and questions of disloyalty among fellow Conservative members.

Despite this perceived downward trend, following Johsnon’s resignation he emerged as the bookies’ favourite to replace his old boss. However, how do his green credentials hold up against his competition?

His voting history shows his record on backing “climate-conscious policies” is patchy at best. He voted to apply the Climate Change Levy tax to both non-domestic electricity supplies and electricity generated from renewable sources.

According to, Sunak voted against a request for the Government to create and carry out a strategy to remove the vast majority of transport emissions by 2030.

He also voted against the Government needing a strategy for carbon capture and storage in the energy industry, as well as setting a decarbonisation target for the UK to be reviewed annually.

Sunak has committed to ensuring the UK is self-sufficient in energy production by 2045.

However, as chancellor, Sunak oversaw the Treasury’s net zero review and during his many Budget Statements he included the launch of the National Infrastructure Bank with climate as a core remit and the launch of sovereign green savings bonds, as well the creation of a £1bn Net-Zero Innovation fund and funding for new “pocket parks” in urban spaces.

Despite these policies, according to reports, Sunak has blocked several policies that could be labelled “green” while in his role as chancellor. This includes delaying the Heat and Buildings Strategy, as well as preventing home insulation policies and spending on new infrastructure – ostensibly, because of the cost to the public purse.

A debate over whether spending on green initiatives now would avoid greater costs down the line is a well-worn one. Clearly, Sunak has felt that the negatives of short term costs outweigh the potential long-term benefits of significant investment in net zero and climate policies. Will this trend continue if he’s elected by the 200,000 voting members of the conservative party?

Sunak has also recently announced he will scrap plans to relax bans on onshore wind farms in the UK, with his campaign citing the “distress and disruption” they can “often cause”. Sunak said: “Wind energy will be an important part of our strategy, but I want to reassure communities that as prime minister I would scrap plans to relax the ban on onshore wind in England, instead focusing on building more turbines offshore.”

As an alternative, he said he would prioritise offshore wind farms, make the 2045 self-sufficiency target into law, and create a new secretary of state for energy sovereignty.


Policy and External Affairs Director at CIWM, Lee Marshall, continued: “The Resources and Waste Strategy was launched in 2018 and has the potential to be a once in a generation policy shift, along with the Environment Act and the Build Back Greener Net Zero Strategy.

“Yet progress has slowed almost to a stop. It is a year since the second consultation on consistent collections in England closed and we still do not have the Government response. Work on consistency and EPR is becoming fragmented at a point when it is vital that both are considered together, along with DRS.

“There is a feeling that these potentially game-changing policies are being eroded, and the fact that producer funding levels have reduced by £1 billion seems to indicate that environmental ambition is lessening.”

Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak will find out if they will be the next Prime Minister on 5 September.

How big an issue will climate change be when Party members go to the ballot box?

A YouGov poll commissioned by The Times found only 4% of Party members surveyed said meeting the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050 was in their top three priorities for the next prime minister.

A YouGov poll commissioned by The Times found only 4% of Party members surveyed said meeting the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050 was in their top three priorities for the next prime minister.

Out of the 10 policy areas listed in the survey, achieving net zero slumped to the bottom of priorities. Members said winning a general election, cutting taxes, increasing defence spending, and strengthening the UK’s global standing were all more important.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published the latest Public Attitudes Tracker in July, which showed 84% of people said that they were concerned about climate change, with 41% saying they were “very concerned” and 43% saying they were “fairly concerned”.

Perhaps the candidates are focussing on winning over Party members in the leadership race, and as it appears to be lower on members’  priorities, are playing down the green angle There may be a shift in their rhetoric and focus when it’s time for a general election. Only time will tell.

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