A group of backbench Conservative MPs sceptical of the government’s net-zero targets have launched a campaign that threatens to derail the UK’s green agenda.
The Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), comprising around 20 Tory MPs and peers, have tried to “link the government’s net-zero agenda to the cost-of-living crisis”, The Guardian reported, and are calling for “cuts to green taxes and an increase of fossil fuel production”.
Critics have accused the group of attempting to drag climate policies into a “culture war” – a “dangerous new tactic” by “those opposed to addressing the ecological emergency”, Michael Mann, author of The New Climate War, told the paper.
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The group was set up last summer by Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, who quickly enlisted fellow Conservatives including serial agitator and “self-described Brexit hardman” Steve Baker, said The Guardian. Both Mackinlay and Baker are also members of the eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG).
The NZSG “says it accepts the fundamental facts of the climate emergency and the need to reduce emissions”, the paper continued. But the Tory rebels have argued that the government’s net-zero plans are “too bold, dreamed up by out-of-touch elites, and would impoverish working people, ‘making them colder and poorer’”.
The group gained “minimal traction” in the run-up to the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow last year, but have reportedly “sensed an opportunity” in recent weeks as gas prices and other living costs have soared.
According to The Guardian, Mackinlay and Baker “stepped up their recruitment campaign in the corridors of Westminster ahead of the Christmas break”, targeting the 2019 intake of Tory MPs. The duo was said to have showed colleagues “alarming graphs and data about the cost-of-living crisis”, and to have argued that the government’s environmental targets were becoming “politically toxic” and that the “obsession with the green agenda was putting their slim majorities at risk”.
Who are the members?
The group’s members kicked off 2022 by sending a letter to The Sunday Telegraph calling for an end to green levies and more fossil fuel extraction.
Alongside Mackinlay and Baker, the letter was signed by former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey; Tory peer Peter Lilley; ex-schools minister Robert Halfon; Julian Knight; Anne Marie Morris; ERG member Andrew Bridgen; David Jones; Damien Moore; Andrew Lewer; Karl McCartney; Marcus Fysh; Philip Davie;, Adam Holloway; and Craig Tracey. The signatories also included 2019ers Scott Benton, Mark Jenkinson, Greg Smyth and Lee Anderson.
Baker is also a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a group described by The Guardian as a “prominent publisher of material questioning the consensus on climate science” that was launched by former MP and climate change-sceptic Nigel Lawson in 2009.
How could the NZSG impact green agenda?
Baker told Sky News last month that he believed that the campaign against net zero could be “bigger than Brexit” and was addressing a key “moral issue”.
“I genuinely believe that when the full costs of net-zero start hitting us, if people have never been given a choice at the ballot box, we could end up with something bigger than the poll tax, certainly bigger than Brexit, because the numbers of people hit by it and their inability to cope will be huge,” he said.
“I am sick to death of people talking to me about food and fuel poverty, and then piling costs on the poor. This is a fundamental moral issue.”
More recently, NZSG chair Mackinlay told The Telegraph that the group could “play a similar role to the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown sceptics who defied Boris Johnson on Plan B measures, or indeed the Tory Brexit rebels under Theresa May,” according to the paper's political reporter Dominic Penna.
Nigel Farage has also drawn comparisons between net-zero targets and what he calls the “European question”, calling for a referendum on the issue on GB News.
“It's been imposed on people without any public discussion,” he said. “There is no difference between the political parties, no difference between them, on any of this stuff.”
But Conservative Environment Network member Chris Skidmore “said warnings of social unrest over net zero were irresponsible and populist”, Sky News reported.
Boris Johnson believes that his government’s net-zero strategy is “the answer to the energy price crisis”, the broadcaster added, and that “the switch to renewables and nuclear will eventually provide a greater degree of energy sovereignty and reduce exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices”.
“Anyone who thinks high energy bills are the result of ‘green crap’ obviously hasn’t been paying attention to the price of crude oil,” wrote The Telegraph’s associate editor Ben Wright. In fact, “analysis suggests that 90% of the increase in household energy bills over the past year has come from the increase in gas prices alone”.
“Opponents of net zero” argue that the UK’s failure to invest in the North Sea reserves, a ban on fracking and shutting down storage facilities gas has “increased our vulnerability” and left us reliant on Russian oil, Wright continued. But “fans of net zero” argue that “we haven’t moved far or fast enough on the development of renewables” and that “increased domestic gas production would simply feed into global markets where the price is open to manipulation”.
“Both sides have a point,” Wright concluded. But “the key is getting the balance right between running down fossil fuel dependency and developing renewable sources of energy. It can’t be an either/or proposition.”
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