It could be argued that the net zero debate is probably one of the most polarised since the EU referendum.
On the one side, we have those who approach the subject with such zeal that they want to achieve this goal at all costs. No matter the expense, no matter the upheaval and no matter how much progress we are already making compared with others globally, it will never be enough. For them, the target means everything and anything else is simply a side issue. Some will side with the Greta Thunbergs and the Extinction Rebellions of this world and woe betide anybody who disagrees with them. They remind me of the witch-burning villagers from Monty Python, although obviously burning anything in their eyes would emit too much carbon, so it would have to be another cruel but environmentally sound punishment – perhaps being forced to listen to James O’Brien’s radio show on loop would do it.
On the other side, we have those who may flatly deny the existence of any sort of change in the Earth’s climate at all, will gladly continue to use resources that we know are finite and who believe that protecting the environment for future generations can be put off for the time being, if not indefinitely. It will always be someone else’s problem. They fear being told to put away their juicy steaks and to eat insects or avocado on toast instead. They fear any form of solar, wind or tree planting and see them as being on par with sunlight to Dracula or a horror scene from Day of the Triffids.
Like the EU referendum, however, most people in the UK will be in neither of the most extreme camps, but will instead have a range of views based on their experiences of life and their values. They will have their own opinions on the environment and I am pretty sure if you knocked on their doors and asked if they cared about it they would all say a resounding yes, regardless of where they lie on the political spectrum.
But messaging matters and the debate over net zero has at times missed this key point. We have been so obsessed with arguing about “what”, that we have sometimes forgot to ask “how?” and “why?”. Many people still have very different visions of what Brexit should mean, which is why so many campaigned together, although in many cases for very different reasons. Like Brexit, net zero represents a change that will manifest over generations and is not simply a switch that can be turned on or off (low energy of course).
Some argue that the term “net zero” itself has become increasingly toxic, and that it needs rebranding. Others argue that the term simply needs reclaiming from those who want to take it to its extremes, in the same way we have debated use of the Union Flag or the Cross of St George in the past.
To be successful, net zero needs the public to buy into it and to be pushing in the same direction. That won’t happen if those who claim to be diehard environmentalists feel the plans aren’t robust enough or if members of the public feel it is punitive and simply making them poorer for no logical reason. People like the overall idea of innovation and a cleaner, more efficient Britain, but as we saw with Ulez, they aren’t daft and will push back when they feel they are being taken advantage of and hit in the pocket.
This is where Rishi Sunak’s unexpected but very welcome intervention really made some cut-through. He gets it. He not only gets it, but managed to do something I thought near impossible – to satisfy both sides of the argument and get at least most people onboard, which is certainly no easy task. He is right that if people start resenting net zero that it could flare up in the near future. He therefore wants something that will last for the long term – hence the new tag line on the podium.
Many of the fears of those sceptical of net zero were allayed, including some of the sillier ideas floated by others, such as having seven bins, banning certain foods and stopping people going on family holidays.
Probably the most high-profile change in direction is the ban on new petrol and diesel cars and pushing this back to 2035, in line with other countries in Europe. While electric car use will no doubt continue to increase up to that point, it will also be down to the consumer. It is the job of industry to innovate and to make them cheaper, more reliable and more affordable. I remember my first car being a 1.3L Ford Fiesta I purchased for £1,000. Will there be a decent second-hand market by then so young people and those on low incomes can purchase a vehicle? I do hope so. The Prime Minister realises that for many, especially outside London, the car is a necessity, not a luxury.
Also tackled were fears over boilers being replaced. As a city boy who moved to the countryside, I have had my first experiences of living off-grid and having a kerosene tank. As a constituency MP I have since been inundated with emails from constituents, many elderly, concerned about having to replace their heating oil systems with heat pumps. Once again, the Prime Minister found a sensible path, increasing grants, delaying the roll out until 2035 and also creating exemptions for those where heat pumps are simply not practical. Likewise, he has managed to avoid a potential crisis in the rental market by scrapping onerous energy efficiency requirements.
Political commentator Patrick Christys on GB News referred to the net zero speech as being a policy not for big business but for “Doris from Doncaster”. It is certainly great for red wall constituencies such as mine in Bassetlaw and means there is now genuinely something for everyone that we can get behind. But in truth, this announcement also provides businesses with certainty, too. They are now free from the straitjacket of “what” and can instead focus on “how”.
The battle lines with Labour have now been drawn and after struggling with their immigration policy last week they will be under increasing pressure to flesh out their own policy and have it subjected to public scrutiny. I think they will struggle to strike the balance Rishi Sunak has on this issue. The success of his speech is underlined not just by the balance he has struck, but the way he has done it in making sure it is underlined by Conservative principles.
As the first major policy announcement ahead of the conference season, this was not just a speech that showed we can once again connect with and judge the public mood. It was a speech that showed that we can still win the next general election.
Brendan Clarke-Smith MP is chairman of the Blue Collar Conservatives group