Liz Truss’ speech addressing the Conservative Party conference was a “shameful” display of a government not taking the climate and nature crises seriously enough, environmentalists have said.
Ms Truss’ only made one mention of climate change in her speech on Wednesday which failed to reassure environmentalists who have spent the last week raising the alarm against what they have described as a government “attack on nature.”
“I think this is a clear message that she is rowing back on net zero,” Joan Edwards, director of policy and public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts said of the speech. “Less than a year ago we were telling developing countries to do something about climate, and yet within less than a year, we’re opening up gas fields that are full of fossil fuels that will be burned and will produce more carbon dioxide.”
“It’s shameful,” she added.
“We are opening more gas fields in the North Sea and delivering more renewables and nuclear energy,” Ms Truss told party members in Birmingham. “That is how we will protect the great British environment, deliver on our commitment to net zero and tackle climate change.”
While Ms Truss reaffirmed her commitment to net zero, environmentalists and the Green Party objected to her labeling green campaigners as part of an “anti-growth coalition.”
“This government is determined to wreck the climate with a dangerous drive to growth that is based on greater investment in fossil fuels that are destroying the planet,” said Green Party deputy leader Zack Polanski.
Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Ms Truss seemed to be “obsessed with expensive, divisive and dirty forms of energy.”
Rosie Rogers, head of oil and gas transition at Greenpeace UK, said if Ms Truss thinks new gas fields or fracking can be part of a credible plan for growth or to hit net zero she was in for a “nasty shock.”
“This looks like a government that isn’t taking the job or its voters seriously,” she said.
Ms Truss’ speech came after Egypt warned the UK against “backtracking” from the global climate agenda in response to reports that Ms Truss had told King Charles not to attend the summit. Egypt is taking over the reins from Britain as the president of the Cop 27 climate summit that is to be held in Sharm-el-Sheikh next month.
“It felt like last November that the world was starting to take climate change really really seriously,” said Ms Edwards. “And yet this government that we have at the moment doesn’t seem to recognise there is a climate issue and that we as a prosperous country have a duty to do the right thing.”
Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said if the government was serious about protecting the environment it must prioritise delivering on its manifesto commitments.
“Rather than reopening the door to fracking, expanding oil and gas licencing in the North Sea, and cutting back on regulation to protect nature, we need to see new impetus to move us beyond the fossil fuels of the past, by scaling up renewable generation and insulating our homes, and supercharging the shift to nature friendly farming,” she said.
Richard Benwell, the CEO of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said drilling for new oil and gas will not only increase Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels but also threaten marine life with warming seas, increased traffic and will lead to “dire impacts” of noise, oil spills and toxic pollutants.
“Hardly compatible with a promise to protect 30 per cent of our ocean for nature by 2030,” he said, referring to a government target.
“The government insists it’s not watering down its environmental commitments, but we have yet to see evidence that the deregulatory agenda will not put the environment at further risk, let alone the positive additional proposals needed to get on course for net zero and nature’s recovery.”
Environmental groups objected to Ms Truss’ labelling green campaigners as part of an “anti-growth coalition,” after Greenpeace activists disrupted her speech holding a banner that read: “Who voted for this?”
Green groups have persistently argued that growth and protecting nature should go hand-in-hand as they’ve warned new government policies aimed at boosting growth risk seeing the countryside being concreted over and the dawn chorus silenced.
Ms White said nature and a safe climate were the “very foundations on which future growth depends.”
While Mr Benwell, of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said any labelling of the environment sector being anti-growth ignores the fact that a strong economy is “completely reliant” on a healthy environment, saying the prime minister was “pitting nature and growth against each other in a false conflict.”
An RSPB spokesperson said deregulation was the “enemy of sustainable growth.”
Ms Edwards said it was important to remember that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and that regulation is there for a reason – not to stop growth but to make sure it happens without creating more damage.
“Some of the species that fought back since the 1960s such as the peregrine falcon, the dolphin, the otter, they fought back because we had regulations that reduce the amount of chemicals that go into our environment.”
The government has previously said that “claims we intend to go back on our commitment to the environment are simply not right.
“A strong environment and a strong economy go hand-in-hand. We have legislated through the Environment Act and will continue to improve our regulations and wildlife laws in line with our ambitious vision.”
A government spokesperson said the UK remained fully committed to reaching net zero by 2050 and said it had always been clear gas would have a role in its transition to net zero.
“The UK is forging ahead of many other countries on net zero – with 40% of our power now coming from cleaner and cheaper renewable sources,” the spokesperson said. “ We will also continue to drive forward our commitments on nuclear and renewables like offshore wind.”