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July 12, 2022updated 02 Aug 2022 10:41am

Conservative leadership race: Which candidate is the most climate-friendly?

Capital Monitor analyses the climate change stances of the Tory MPs vying to become the next UK prime minister.

By Polly Bindman

Rishi Sunak is the current favourite in the Conservative Party leadership race.
Rishi Sunak, the UK’s former chancellor, has thrown his hat into the ring to become the next prime minister. (Photo by Tolga Akmen via WPA Pool/Getty Images)
  • Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman have the worst voting records on policies combating climate change, according to data from TheyWorkForYou.
  • Kemi Badenoch, Braverman and Nadhim Zahawi have signalled a desire to move away from policies that support the UK’s transition to net zero by 2050…
  • …while Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Penny Mordaunt have expressed support for maintaining the UK commitment to it.

Despite being the most pressing issue for the future of our planet, addressing climate change does not appear to be a priority for any of the Conservative Party leadership candidates wanting to be the UK’s next prime minister. The contest for the top job will conclude in September.

While Boris Johnson’s legacy on climate change is mixed – particularly since he rolled back several of his more positive actions announced at the Cop26 summit amid rampant inflation, low growth and the war in Ukraine – his potential successors appear even more lacking in climate ambition (see chart below).

So far, Conservative Party leadership bids have set climate change aside in favour of tackling more immediate issues such as the cost of living – with cutting tax a major priority for many. However, think tanks have expressed the importance of having a political leader in the UK who can see how addressing climate change can go hand in hand.

Fran Boait, research executive director of campaign group Positive Money, argues that any new leader who revives the UK debt deficit myths of the David Cameron-George Osborne era “will be disastrous for the green transition, which needs much higher levels of public investment and action to support households now”.

Similarly, Joe Tetlow from the Green Alliance tells Capital Monitor: “To deal with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, and keep people warm this winter, the answer is electrifying our economy with home-grown cheap renewables and a massive home insulation scheme.”

Capital Monitor has reviewed recent public statements and historic voting data from the crop of ten leadership hopefuls (accurate as of 1pm UK time on 12 July) to establish their stances on climate change.

We have sourced voting records from TheyWorkForYou, which tracks this data, along with actions on 11 of the most significant climate policies since 2008, according to the UK Youth Climate Coalition, a youth-led non-profit that collates data on MPs green credentials. The list below is ordered by the latest betting odds on the individuals aiming to become the next PM (starting with the most likely candidate).

Where do the Conservative party leadership candidates stand on climate change?

Rishi Sunak

The likely front runner in the leadership race, former Goldman Sachs analyst Rishi Sunak is the only candidate, along with Suella Braverman, to have ‘almost always’ voted against measures to prevent climate change, according to TheyWorkForYou. This places him behind Johnson, who ‘generally’ voted against such policies.

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Sunak’s budget statements have tended to omit references to climate change. In February 2022, as chancellor, he pushed to fast-track the approval of six oil and gas fields. In April, he blocked the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy proposals for home insulation.

In May 2022, Sunak imposed a windfall tax on fossil fuel giants, but was criticised for including a 91% tax relief that applied exclusively to new extraction projects.

Penny Mordaunt

The minister of state for trade policy, Penny Mordaunt, has ‘generally’ voted against policies to combat climate change.  

However, on 11 July, Mordaunt told The Telegraph that investing in net zero would create up to three million new jobs by 2030 – something others have not articulated so far.

In May 2022, Mordaunt hosted a joint economic and trade committee meeting alongside Vietnam, with net-zero commitments on the agenda, where she said the UK would “reinforce its commitment to helping Vietnam meet its net-zero goals by sharing expertise in the renewable energy sector”.

But last year, the Byline Times revealed that in 2019 Mordaunt accepted a £10,000 donation from relative Terence Mordaunt, a leading climate change sceptic and founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate-sceptic think tank.

Tom Tugendhat

The Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat has ‘consistently’ voted against climate policies, giving him a worse climate voting record than Boris Johnson.

And yet he has publicly supported some climate policies. In 2018, he was among a group of MPs requesting the government formalise its climate ambition to reaching net zero by 2050. This was subsequently carried through in law. He still supports the need for the UK to reach net zero.

More recently, Tugendhat wrote in The Times that "Europe needs to be more competitive in the race to decarbonise" and called for “a viable path to net zero that fosters domestic green growth”.  He has also criticised China’s investment in coal-fired power plants.

Liz Truss

Foreign secretary Liz Truss served as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs between 2014 and 2016, during which time she cut subsidies for solar farms. Indeed, Truss has generally voted against policies to prevent climate change.

As a former commercial manager at energy major Shell, Truss has clear ties to the oil industry. She publicly supported the Heathrow Airport expansion, and in 2021, as secretary of state for international trade, she took the decision to drop climate conditions from the UK-Australia trade agreement text. Ahead of Cop26, Truss said: “The way to reduce climate emissions from flying isn’t to stop flying, it is to create the new generation of next technology.”

Nadhim Zahawi

The former secretary of state for education, Nadhim Zahawi has ‘generally’ voted against measures to prevent climate change. On Monday, the chancellor spoke at an event hosted by the Thatcherite group Conservative Way Forward, which campaign group Desmog revealed was backed by climate-sceptic MP Steve Baker and funded by climate science denial group the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

At the event, Zahawi said that while he would continue to support the country’s commitment to net zero by 2050, he also wants to “temporarily abolish VAT and green levies” to save families from skyrocketing bills.

Zahawi is a former oil executive, and in 2021 The Mirror newspaper revealed he made £1.3m from a second job working for Gulf Keystone Petroleum while a sitting MP. In January 2022, Zahawi announced his opposition to a windfall tax on oil majors.

More positively, Zahawi introduced a climate science GCSE to the school curriculum while education secretary, on the basis that “sustainability and climate change are the biggest challenges facing mankind”.

Jeremy Hunt

Having formerly served as both foreign secretary and health secretary, Jeremy Hunt has ‘generally’ voted against policies to combat climate change. Along with leadership rival Sajid Javid (see below), Hunt told the BBC last week he supports the UK’s commitment to net zero by 2050.

In March 2022, Hunt said in response to the global gas crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine it was “vital we decarbonise the UK’s economy by 2050” and develop more renewable energy, to help “lower people’s bills, strengthen our energy security and avoid the worst consequences of climate change”.

In June 2022, Hunt publicly condemned gas drilling in Surrey, where his constituency is. However, in 2019, his leadership campaign accepted a £25,000 donation from Terence Mordaunt’s Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Kemi Badenoch

Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has ‘consistently’ voted against policies to counter climate change.

Like attorney general Suella Braverman (see below), Badenoch has hinted at derailing net-zero ambitions. On 9 July, Badenoch told The Telegraph newspaper that while she is "not someone who doesn't believe in climate change", a net-zero target is “arbitrary” and it would be “wrong” to set a target “without having a clear plan of the cost and knowing what it would entail".

In 2018, Badenoch expressed support for a continuous fuel duty freeze, arguing that “it will help keep bills and the overall cost of living low”.

Suella Braverman

Conservative MP for Fareham and the current attorney general, Suella Braverman, has, like Sunak, ‘almost always’ voted against climate policies.

Braverman has positioned herself as one of the few candidates explicitly rejecting net-zero plans as part of her leadership bid. She told the Express newspaper on 9 July that “to deal with the energy crisis we need to suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050”.

Sajid Javid

While former chancellor Sajid Javid has generally voted against policies to combat climate change, last week he confirmed to the BBC he would keep the UK’s commitment to net zero in place if he became prime minister.

Just after stepping down as chancellor in February 2020, Javid expressed support for incorporating natural capital into financial decision-making, as pricing nature “fits perfectly well with being a free marketeer”.

On 11 July, Javid told the BBC that he “supports a prime minister-led task force to accelerate the energy revolution and a reinvigorated approach to seize the huge opportunities and new industries". 

Rehman Chishti

The lesser-known Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham, Rehman Chishti, has generally voted against measures to prevent climate change. In October 2020, he voted not to call on the government to develop a plan to eliminate the majority of transport emissions by 2030, according to TheyWorkForYou.

A backbencher since 2010 who has chosen to keep a low profile, less is known about his views on climate. 

Capital Monitor is hosting the Webinar series, Making Sense of Net Zero. Find out more information on NSMG.live.

Read more: UK public pensions fear curbs on ethical investing

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