Abandoning the green promises would be “political suicide”, warned Sunak and Starmer Natural environment

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Britain’s leaders have been warned of a “politically suicidal” dash to walk away from their green pledges as concerns grow that the two major parties could water down their plans to tackle the climate crisis following a shock by-election result.

Leading figures in business, the scientific community and across the political divide warned that any scaling back of climate policies would be deeply unpopular with voters, delay the international drive to get to zero and damage the UK’s green reputation.

There are fears that both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will loosen their support for these policies after the Conservatives’ shock victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election on Thursday. The Tories won the seat, by just 495 votes, with a campaign that capitalized on opposition to Labor London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez).

Sunak is already urged by the right of the party and some members of his own cabinet to rethink their commitment to green policies in light of the Uxbridge result. Meanwhile, a senior Labor MP warned that Starmer risked “allowing the Tories to edit Labour’s next manifesto” on climate change. The Labor leader had said the Uxbridge result showed the party did not have to adopt policies that could feature in Tory election leaflets.

Rishi Sunak with newly elected Tory MP Steve Tuckwell in Uxbridge, west London, following the party’s by-election success. Photograph: Carl Court/PA

This weekend there is a concerted effort to ensure political unity on Britain’s net zero targets remains in place. Alok Sharma, a former Conservative cabinet minister and president of Cop26, said it was vital that all parties maintained political consensus to achieve net zero.

“We have built a broad political consensus in the UK about pursuing net-zero policies that are good for the economy, jobs, exports and the environment. Businesses support this agenda because they can see the economic benefits, he told the Observer. “And the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has pointed out that unmitigated climate change would ultimately have catastrophic economic and fiscal consequences for the UK.

“Concerns about the environment and climate change are also consistently among the top issues of importance to voters. Given the economic, environmental and electoral case for climate action, it would be self-defeating for any political party to seek to break the political consensus on this vital agenda,” Sharma warned.

Zac Goldsmith, the former minister who left the government over what he described as Sunak’s lack of interest in the environment, said any party rethinking its climate commitment would be punished. “Snap election results can be interpreted in countless ways, and it is the nature of politicians and political commentators to include their own biases in the results,” he told the Observer. “But to use these recent results to advocate abandoning the UK’s previous environmental leadership is cynical and idiotic.

A cargo ship sails behind a wind turbine seen against a setting sunA wind farm on Teesside – renewable energy is popular with the public. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

“It would also be politically suicidal, given the very deep and broad support for environmental action across the electorate. And it is immoral, given that both the government and the opposition recognize the gravity of the crisis we face.

“So it’s hard to believe that there are people at the top of any of the major parties who are calling for green policies to be abandoned, but if there are, I can only hope that they will be beaten by the electorate when the time comes,” said Goldsmith, who was environment and international climate minister before resigning from the Foreign Office.

Professor Nicholas Stern, who led a seminal review in 2006 on the economics of climate change, also issued a plea for climate leadership. “Air pollution kills tens of thousands of people in the UK every year, far more than road traffic deaths, and millions worldwide,” he said.

“Inaction is not a sensible option for us, our children and grandchildren. Second, the costs of investments in the fossil fuel transition are significantly increased by political risk due to politicians cutting and changing their views and actions.

“Thirdly, the investment costs of the transition must be distributed fairly. And fourth, the UK’s reputation in the world depends on its leadership on these issues. Our position has already been damaged by the loss of focus since we hosted the UN climate change summit in Glasgow in 2021.”

The latest Opinium poll for the Observer highlights the perilous state the Tories are in as MPs head to their constituencies for the Westminster summer break. Labor has a lead of 17 points. The party retains 42% of the vote, with the Conservatives only 25%.

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Nicholas Stern, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, at Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021.Nicholas Stern, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, at Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Sunak’s team is desperately looking for ways to turn around the party’s fortunes. As well as calls to move away from green measures, the Prime Minister is also said to be considering a campaign that promises to “protect” voters from Labor policies. Sunak’s government already appears to have watered down and delayed the end of the effective ban on more onshore wind farms put in place by David Cameron.

Nathan Bennett, head of strategic communications at RenewableUK, the renewable energy trade association, said now was precisely the wrong time to “reduce ambition” and develop bogus arguments about the costs of greening the economy. “I worry that a false narrative is emerging that green policies are unpopular and expensive, which is certainly not the case with renewables and many other clean technologies,” he said.

“New wind farms are reducing energy bills and polls consistently show that if anything, people want us to deploy more renewable energy than we currently have, including new onshore wind.”

Greg Jackson, chief executive of Octopus Energy, the renewable energy group, said there was now a risk of the UK losing out to other countries in the race for investment: “Taking net zero opportunities to deliver tangible financial benefits is extremely popular. Our customers like getting cheap energy when it’s windy, or being paid to use less when it’s not. Britain has been a leader in cheap and clean energy, but like so many industries in the past, we run the risk for other countries to reap the benefits of our innovation, costly to the climate, cost of living and national security.”

Starmer raised concerns within the party by extending his criticism to Ulez. “We are doing something very wrong if the policies put forward by the Labor party end up in each and every Tory leaflet,” he told the national Labor policy forum in Nottingham. It marks an escalation of his confrontation with Khan over the Ulez extension. In a change of tone, a source close to Khan said on Friday that he was “listening to Londoners and always looking for ways to address their concerns”.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the Observer: “Of course potential policy banana skins must be avoided, but if we’re not careful, that effectively means allowing the Tories to edit the next Labor manifesto on the biggest issue we face, the climate crisis.”

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