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Slasher Truss scares the Greens with her climate illiteracy

As she adds more fossil fuel drilling to her portfolio of environmental insults, Liz Truss, PM, is shaping up as a threat for a world facing climate disaster

Liz Truss leaves 10 Downing street after a cabinet meeting. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

If any more evidence were needed that Liz Truss is environmentally illiterate and the worst possible prime minister to take charge as the consequences of climate change become increasingly clear, this week we had the news that she intends to increase oil drilling in the North Sea.

According to The Times, this was a major part of her solution to soaring energy bills, and she has those climate titans Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kwasi Kwarteng — her putative chancellor — talking to oil and gas firms about securing energy supply. This includes increasing domestic production.

Given that it takes around a quarter of a century to get from new drilling licences to actually producing gas and oil, any new North Sea drilling will not help the current crisis. This makes the announcement little more than performative — a sop to the climate sceptics whose votes she is seeking, but also a statement of where she stands on climate, which is not anywhere good.

Announced in reaction to criticism that she has no energy policy during a national energy crisis during which bills have almost tripled, Truss’s plan is clearly just another bone thrown at the reactionary Conservative membership that will almost certainly appoint her as prime minister. It delighted both the oil and gas giants and dinosaur bigwigs such as John Redwood, who said on Twitter: “Good news that Liz Truss plans to get more gas out of the North Sea to ease the squeeze. More permits and some changes of rules can boost output. The answer to energy shortage and sky high prices is more supply.”

More supply, yes, but not more fossil fuels in the long term. The UK saw temperatures rise above 40C for the first time ever this summer. Sections of venerable rivers, including the Loire and the Yangtze have dried up. Pakistan is currently suffering record flash floods, which were described by Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, as a climate catastrophe. The UN chief has also said that investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure was “moral and economic madness”, while the International Energy Agency (IEA) has declared that no new oil, gas or coal development should take place if the world is to meet net zero by 2050 and avoid the worst catastrophes of climate collapse.

It goes without saying that Truss’s plans have been met with disdain by anyone who makes it their business to know about environmental issues, from Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, to Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief UK scientist. In his view, North Sea drilling would have “no real impact on energy bills but still fuel the climate crisis”, while constituting a “gift to fossil fuel giants already making billions from this crisis.”

And how. According to Bloomberg — which cited an unpublished Treasury analysis — UK gas producers and electricity generators could make excess profits of up to £170 billion over the next two years. That is, £170 billion more than the profits they would have been expected to make based on projections from before Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

Truss’s announcement on new drilling is a giant insult to climate and economic sense. New wind and solar projects are popular with the general public, they are often quick to build, and can generate electricity many times more cheaply than gas. The reason household bills are skyrocketing is the cost of gas, which would be less of an issue if the country was not exceptionally dependent on it and if the government had kept its early promises on renewable energy. Unsurprisingly given the old stock and the whittling down of insulation subsidies, the UK has the leakiest homes in western Europe, as shown clearly on a map produced by Tado, the German smart home energy start-up. Over 5 hours, UK homes’ average temperature loss is 3C, while in Germany it is 1C.

Once she takes over, Truss may not go through with her plans — she seems to have inherited the unfortunate Johnsonian habit of blurting out what she thinks people want to hear. In any case, her announcement on North Sea oil, alarming as it sounds, really amounts to nothing. The UK government’s energy security strategy already involves maximising North Sea production and current plans include another round of licencing, expected this autumn. None of this takes into account the fact that remaining North Sea gas reserves are negligible and decreasing.

But Truss’s pronouncements are also dangerous. While they may not result in anything meaningful, they will form part of an a political and economic atmosphere that favours the use of old style, climate-destroying fossil fuels over efforts to develop new technologies.

This is no surprise given her track record on the environment. During the campaign for the Tory leadership, Truss — like Sunak — said little on the issue. But what she has said has been cringeworthy.

Of solar energy, Truss has said she doesn’t want farmers filling fields with “paraphernalia like solar farms”, even though solar energy production is currently way below the government’s own target, is popular with the public, and takes up just under 0.1% of UK land. Agricultural land covers 56% of the UK. Plus, sunshine is free. Truss has also promised to end the moratorium on fracking, imposed in 2019 amid safety concerns.

In March, she told the Telegraph that she would “put climate change on the back-burner” if she won the election, even though the UK’s climate targets are already in danger due to lack of proper, well-financed policies. Her supporter Therese Coffrey has said a Truss government will freeze green levies, which would reduce the money available for combating climate change.

When challenged, a spokesperson for the Truss campaign has said that: “Liz is committed to reaching Net Zero by 2050 in a Conservative way.” Exactly what that might be is not disclosed, but given the changes after the Conservatives came to power in 2010 with David Cameron hugging huskies and getting himself a wind turbine, it doesn’t sound too promising. Cutting the “green crap” after 2013 by ending onshore wind and solar subsidies, along with energy efficiency schemes such as a plan to make all homes carbon neutral, was not only bad for the planet, but also added £2.5 billion more to energy bills, according to a January analysis by Carbon Brief. But the decision to cut away the green agenda was in line with Tory ideology — and a Conservative source once told me Cameron didn’t believe in anyway.

Truss doesn’t even pretend. That’s obvious from even a cursory examination of her record. As trade secretary, when she was boasting about the pygmy deals she was securing across the world after Brexit, she dropped mentions of the Paris Agreement from the deal with Australia to “get it over the line”. She is a strong supporter of Heathrow expansion, and said at the start of COP26 that people should keep flying and eating meat. She has suggested she will review the UK’s net zero target for 2050 to make the policies more “market friendly”.

One reason why the UK is struggling with its gas supply is that the country has so little storage. Truss was chief secretary to the Treasury in 2017, when the government declined to subsidise the Rough gas storage facility off the Yorkshire coast after Centrica announced it was planning to close it. Truss has not denied involvement in the decision, which has now been reversed. But it’s too late for the storage reservoir to fill up by more than a quarter this winter.

And Truss’s stint as environment secretary between 2014 and 2015 is sobering for how her “efficiency” cuts laid waste to the department — although given that she was also a justice minister who didn’t defend justice, maybe it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Truss slashed the funds for the Environment Agency by £235 million as part of general Conservative cuts, including £80 million for sewage monitors. Between 2016 and 2021, sewage discharge more than doubled, according to a Labour Party analysis. Figures today are incomplete, because there aren’t enough monitors — Truss’s cuts, again. “She was a poor minister, the Environment Agency has been cut to the bone and it can’t monitor or regulate effectively,” Vaughan Lewis, a senior consultant for the agency, told the Guardian.

When Rory Stewart was a Conservative junior minister he worked with Truss when she was secretary of state for the environment, an experience he characterised as “traumatising”. He said on the Rest is Politics podcast that she rarely had much interest in the departments she ran, but rather saw each one through the ideological prism of budgets and cuts. “She sees it very much as IBM business management in the 1980s,” he said.

Environmental groups are worried about what Truss might do as prime minister. “Truss’s lack of support for action on climate while in government, as well as her vocal endorsement of climate-wrecking projects such as Heathrow and fracking don’t paint a hopeful picture of what her government’s climate agenda would look like,” Friends of the Earth said in an analysis. By comparison, Rishi Sunak’s record was merely “indifferent”.

Even if Truss doesn’t actually have a plan for climate change, this obsession with “efficiencies” and cutting doesn’t bode well. What will she cut? Green levies or energy company profits? Investment in renewable energy or oil drilling? You just know that, in terms of the climate and probably much else, her cuts are bound to fall in all the wrong places.

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