Listening to the party leaders’ speeches last week, it is important to think about what has been said (and what has not) about the environment. Rishi Sunak surprised many across the political divide by omitting any mention of the environment in his New Year’s speech, with the climate crisis not listed amongst his “five foundations on which to build a better future”.
Is the Prime Minister’s decision to focus on issues like inflation and the NHS a reflection of shifting public priorities? Certainly, the cost of living crisis has come to dominate the political and public discourse in recent months, and will continue to do so this year. Whilst resolving immediate issues from the looming recession to the NHS ‘permacrisis’ monopolizes the Government’s bandwidth, we can ill-afford to relegate climate change to a second-tier issue.
The climate crisis is not a distant nor ill-defined threat unlikely to affect the UK for decades (if at all). To take just one example, the unprecedented drought last year is projected to become a much more frequent event. It was announced last week that 2022 was the hottest year on record as we witnessed 40 degree heat in parts of the UK where it would be unthinkable just 30 years ago. Since the consensus view is that the cost of living crisis is unlikely to last very long and inflation is forecast to drop to just 3.9% by the end of this year, it seems a short-termist strategy to ignore the green agenda. Voters will not be distracted for long.
The Government is also making a key strategic mistake by refusing to see the cost of living crisis as linked to the lack of green investment. The UK still refuses to allow the construction of onshore wind which has been proven to provide cheaper and greener electricity than oil and natural gas combustion. In this sense, one of the fastest ways out of the twin fiscal and energy crises is to embrace green power.
What can we learn from Rishi Sunak’s speech then? If this was a political calculation that ‘green issues’ won’t play with the electorate this may yet prove to be flawed. What’s more, strong leadership means building a long term strategy to solve problems rather than ignoring them. And there’s no doubt that the climate crisis is a problem in need of some solutions. Let’s hope that this speech does not reflect the sum of Sunak’s environmental ambitions.