Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, plants water lilies in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, West London on March 16, 2015 | All images credits: Alamy

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Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is not shared by all in his party. So can this relatively recent convert to the green program persuade the Conservatives that the price tag is worth it? Rosamund Urwin Report

In December 2015, after world leaders united in Paris to fight climate change, a column appeared in The telegraph. The winter had been mild and the writer complained that he found himself sweating at the office Christmas party, only to open the window and find it was even hotter outside. Ask yourself if this was “the long awaited inflection point … [when] winter is forever over, ”he called Piers Corbyn, the meteorologist and climate change denier, on whose advice he called it mere weather rather than global warming. The columnist was Boris Johnson.

Fast forward to 2021, and Johnson redefined himself as an environmental warrior ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this fall. COP26 Prime Minister and President Alok Sharma will try to use the summit to present “Global Britain”, leading a mission to save the planet that Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden all endorse of them.

A green industrial revolution has become part of both Johnson’s vision for post-Brexit Britain and the Tories’ leveling agenda. In our carbon-free future, the Prime Minister said we will ‘make breakfast on hydrogen before getting into our electric car’, while UK towns and regions – Teesside, Port Talbot, Merseyside and Mansfield – will become ‘ synonymous with green jobs ”. Johnson’s ten-point plan – with pledges including to make the UK “the Saudi Arabia of the wind” and a future ban on the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars – aims to put the country on the path to recovery. net zero by 2050, which means that the carbon emitted into the atmosphere is balanced by the carbon extracted from it. But the government’s plans have their conservative critics, who believe the demands of reaching net zero will prove politically toxic.

Johnson is not the first Tory leader to try to chart greener ground. As Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron urged voters to “vote blue, go green” as he hugged huskies and hopped into a G-Wiz. In government, however, as the financial crisis and austerity took hold, that program was all but scrapped, with Cameron never succeeding in denying in 2013 that he called environmental policies “green crap.” Theresa May’s government, while busy fighting Brexit, legislated for a legally binding target for the UK to reach net zero. What has changed under the current regime is that the environment is no longer an afterthought; Low-carbon industry is at the heart of Johnson’s plans to “build back better” after the pandemic and to create growth.

The Brexit government is seen by many young people as a hard line … the environment is a way to reach new, younger, perhaps more centrist urban voters.

Ryan Shorthouse, chief executive of the liberal-conservative think tank Bright Blue, argues that there are three reasons for the green makeover: economic, political and ideological. “For many deputies – many of them [former] red wall seats – the green agenda is about jobs and leveling up, ”he says. “Whether it’s vehicle electrification, home heating or carbon capture and storage, these are new developments that require an industry around them.

Earlier this month, Johnson and Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, visited Sunderland, where Nissan and Envision announced the UK’s first gigafactory; Kwarteng called it “a perfect example of our green industrial revolution”. The rapid decline in the cost of low-carbon electricity has also made going green economical.

Politics also play a role. “The Brexit government is seen by many young people as a hard line,” says Shorthouse. “What worries Johnson the most is retaining power [and] the environment is a means of reaching new, younger, perhaps more centrist, urban voters. A deputy minister adds that he allows the party to “return to the center after the toxicity of Brexit”.

Committed environmentalist Stanley Johnson, father of the Prime Minister, and Carrie Johnson, wife of Boris, at a protest against whaling outside the Japanese Embassy in London, January 2019

The group of true conservative believers is growing, inspired by longtime evangelists like Prime Minister Carrie’s wife, father Stanley and their friends, the Goldsmith family. While Zac Goldsmith has continued his environmental work from the House of Lords after losing his seat in 2019, his brother Ben now chairs the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), a lobby group of 99 MPs in his caucus that aims to win back the environmentalism. from the left.

They are opposed to environmentalists on the Conservative benches, including some of Johnson’s former allies of Camp Leave, including Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, who has pledged to make the cost of decarbonization “his next big crusade.” His fear is that the net-zero requirements will hurt the standard of living. He was enraged by a proposal earlier this year (since quietly dropped by No.10) to amend homeowners who will not be retiring their gas boilers by 2035. Baker also joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate skeptical group led by former Chancellor Lord Lawson.

Conservative MPs tend to divide the green agenda into two parts. The first is the easiest to sell: the green industrial revolution, that is, the jobs in the old “red wall” headquarters. The second is harder: forcing consumers to replace their boilers with heat pumps, or to swap a gas-guzzling car for an electric vehicle. “Industrialization takes charge of the orders,” said a Conservative MP. “The problem – and where [MPs] start to fuss – is at the household level, where we are talking about passing significant costs on to individuals and families. ”

This is not our natural territory – we are not the Lib Dems, we are not hippies in sandals

Baker puts it more bluntly. “If Boris Johnson forces the public to buy expensive and inefficient heating, if he makes us abandon our cars, we will reap what we have sown,” he writes in The sun in May. “The cost of net zero could lead to a bigger political crisis than the voting tax.”

A sympathetic MP to Baker (pictured below) adds: “Let’s say we go the electric car route, that means road pricing to replace fuel tax revenue… And that’s not our natural territory. – we are not the Lib Dems, we are not hippies in sandals.

Even Liberal Conservatives agree that this part is difficult. “To date, decarbonization has felt relatively remote from consumers, with industries like the power sector making great strides in phasing out coal,” says Shorthouse. “The next step is going to be a lot more invasive in people’s lives – how they travel, heat their homes, and eat.” He argues that policies are needed to ensure that middle and low income voters are helped to make green changes. “If they are not, then that consensus and that enthusiasm within the Conservative Party could disappear. ”

But Sam Hall, director of CEN, says the Conservatives’ vision for reaching net zero is not for people to stop stealing or change their diet: “It’s much more innovation driven. He admits that gas boilers present a challenge, but says the plan is not to rip them off, but to create incentives to buy heat pumps, which will help develop an emerging market and lower the prices. price.

Outside the party, many environmentalists say the £ 12bn climate package is too small. Additionally, critics argue that government policies are inconsistent: ministers recently approved a new gas-fired power station in North Yorkshire and are reviewing plans for a deep coal mine in Cumbria. A new oil field in the North Sea is also mentioned.

In a recent report, the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government, criticized the UK’s slow progress, noting a gap between rhetoric and action. The country is on track to reduce just one-fifth of the emissions needed to meet the 2035 target of 78% carbon reduction from 1990.

Some critics fear that Johnson will ultimately sacrifice “net-zero” for political expediency. But his father disputes this, claiming his son has a love of nature from his childhood on a farm in Exmoor. “It’s a valley where owls hoot, deer roam, swallows dive, butterflies flutter and the river runs through it,” says Stanley.

The risk for Johnson is that he finds himself shaken on both sides: by climate-skeptical backbenchers raging against green sanctions, and by a new breed of conservative environmentalists with expensive wishlists. Even his own father is not without criticism, voicing fears that the Conservatives have watered down their biodiversity commitments.

The pro-net-zero camp wants COP26 to not only lead to international action, but to change here too. “It is essential that the government … show real leadership by being as ambitious as possible at home,” said Neil Parish, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton in Devon. The parish has its own expensive proposition: to reward farmers for planting trees to capture carbon.

Johnson Sr warns that the lobbying power of donors could also derail the Conservatives’ green plans. “The Conservative Party is no different from other parties – and [that means] money talks, ”he says. “People who put money [party donors] are normally people who are interested in short-term profits. It is not for any of us green to rest on our laurels.

The question is whether her son can prevent an enviro-skeptical rebellion and persuade the true blue conservatives of wisdom to go green.

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