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‘Climate change is on the ballot’: Prime Minister calls surprise summer UK election

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has this afternoon confirmed plans to hold a General Election in July, in a surprise move that is set to see climate change, nature, and the net zero transition play a central role in what is expected to be an intense campaign.

Addressing the nation in the rain outside 10 Downing Street this afternoon, Sunak confirmed voters would be heading to the polls on Thursday 4 July, as he made his pitch to the electorate to back the Conservatives to lead the UK government for a fourth consecutive term.

“Now is the moment for Britain to choose it’s future – to decide on whether we want to build on the progress we have made, or risk going back to square one with no plan and no certainty,” said Sunak. “Earlier today I spoke with His Majesty the King to request the dissolution of Parliament. The King has granted this request, and we will have a General Election on the fourth of July.”

The Conservative Party has been lagging far behind Labour in the polls for much of the past two years, a period which has seen country contend with soaring energy prices, rising inflation, and an economic recession over the past winter. Analysts have suggested the Conservatives require a near unprecedented recovery in the polls to deny Labour a majority. 

However, confirmation this morning that the inflation rate has fallen again to 2.3 per cent – just above the Bank of England target of two per cent – prompted Sunak to claim in his speech today that “inflation is back where it should be”. The Conservatives are now expected to argue throughout the election campaign that the economy is recovering and voters should “stick with the plan” that has helped curb inflation and see economic growth tick up. 

During his short address this afternoon, Sunak sought to place highlight national and energy security as key themes that are likely to feature throughout the upcoming campaign.

“This election will take place at a time when the world is more dangerous than it has been since the end of the Cold War,” he said. “Putin’s Russia is waging a brutal war in Ukraine and will not stop there if he succeeds. That war has also made all too clear the risks to our energy security.”

He also warned that “China is looking to dominate the 21st century by stealing a lead in technology” and that “migration is being weaponised by hostile states that threaten the integrity of our borders”.

But Sunak also insisted he was “proud of what we have achieved together – the bold actions we have taken – and I’m confident about what we can do in the future”.

“We’ve tackled inflation, controlled debt, cut workers taxes and increased the state pension by £900,” he added. “We’ve reduced taxes on investment and seized the opportunities of Brexit to make this the best country in the world to grow a business.”

He also defended the government’s controversial decision to roll back a number of decarbonisation policies, arguing the government would “prioritise energy security and your family finances over dogma in our approach to net zero”.

In response, Labour is set to argue the government has delivered some of the worst productivity and wage growth in modern history, while overseeing a series of scandals that has resulted in three different Prime Ministers over the course of the last Parliament. 

In a short video message, Labour leader Keir Starmer said it was “time for change”, arguing voters had the chance to “stop the chaos; turn the page; start to rebuild”.

“After 14 years under the Tories, nothing seems to work any more,” he said. “Public services crumbling, ambulances that don’t come, families weighed down by higher mortgage rates, antisocial behaviour on our high streets, the list goes on and on. Political chaos feeding decline, feeding chaos, feeding decline.”

Energy, environmental, and climate issues are set to play a central role in the campaign, after the government last year sought to draw clear dividing lines with Labour on the pace of UK decarbonisation by delaying a number of key climate policies on fossil fuel cars, gas boilers and energy efficiency standards for landlords.

Government Ministers have repeatedly argued Labour’s plan to deliver a clean power system by 2030 is not feasible and risks driving up energy bills, while also highlighting their record of delivering the deepest decarbonisation in the G20 and engineering a huge increase in renewables capacity and green investment.

But Labour has hit back by accusing the government of overseeing policy uncertainty and insufficient infrastructure underinvestment that has hampered the clean energy transition, driven up energy bills, and led to a sewage pollution crisis.   

Green groups today urged both main parties to prioritise ambitious climate action in the coming election.

“The election has been called on the day that scientists announced that “never ending” rain in the UK in autumn and winter has been made 10 times more likely by the climate crisis,” said Ed Matthew, campaigns director at climate change think tank E3G. “Climate change is already causing devastation to crops and homes in the UK and our dependence on fossil fuels has been at the heart of the cost of living crisis. Climate change is on the ballot like never before and voters will be looking for bold manifesto pledges to show parties are committed to ambitious action to rapidly build a clean, green energy system. Any party failing to take action on climate change is condemning itself to electoral oblivion.”

Leo Murray, co-director of climate charity Possible, urged political leaders to avoid the temptation to stoke divisions on environmental issues.

“We can’t let climate change become a culture war in this general election campaign,” he said. “During the 2019 general election, it was an issue on the doorstep for the first time. The first ever televised climate debate was broadcast into millions of living rooms and leading politicians pledged billions for climate action. But going into this election, the political consensus around climate is in peril.  Government ministers peddle conspiracy theories. Our prime minister has watered down net zero targets. Politicians are trying to turn climate into a dividing line, rather than a way to bring people together.

“Despite all this, public support for climate action has remained consistently high. People are ready for the transition, and we need our politicians to show the same ambition. We can’t let the delayers and the deniers define this election. We need to protect the consensus for climate action which we’ve built among the public and politicians, and pave the way to a climate parliament.”

Georgia Whitaker, climate campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said the UK was facing “the most pivotal election for the climate” in its history.

“The government of the last 14 years has left the country crumbling, bereft of hope, and its climate record in tatters,” she said. “We’ve had the wettest and warmest years on record, but right at the time the government should have been ramping up climate action, they made a series of devastating row backs that have put future generations at risk. We desperately need politicians who prioritise clean cheap energy, warm homes and healthy clean air and water.”

Business groups also urged politicians to deliver ambitious climate policies as part of their manifestos. Rollo Maschietto, public affairs manager, at the REA (Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology), said: “The next administration will make decisions that will determine whether we meet our net zero targets or fall short. The only way to ensure enduring energy security and an affordable energy system is by ending our reliance on volatile imported fossil fuels by moving to renewables and clean technologies… This election is a chance for voters to prioritise climate action and for politicians to demonstrate their commitment to a greener future.”

While much of the focus in the campaign will be on the battle for Number 10 between Starmer and Sunak, both the Lib Dems and the Greens will be hoping their focus on environmental issues combined with the Conservative’s lowly poll ratings will help them make significant gains.

Greens co-leader and parliamentary candidate for Bristol Central, one of the Party’s top target seats, Carla Denyer, said the long-awaited election offered “the chance to vote for a different vision of what our country can be”.

“We are urging voters to elect at least four Green MPs to Parliament,” she said. “We are ready. Across the country people will have the chance to vote for a Green candidate offering voters hope and practical solutions to the cost-of-living crisis, supporting people into warm, affordable homes, protecting our NHS and cleaning up our toxic rivers.” 

Whoever wins the next election will face a wave of critical environmental and climate policy decisions, following a series of warnings in recent years that the government is off track to meet its emissions and nature goals for the end of the decade, and a High Court ruling that the current Carbon Budget Delivery Plan needs strengthening.

As such, the next government will be tasked with delivering a revamped net zero strategy and national climate action plan; accelerating renewables development, energy efficiency improvements, and heat pump installation; finalising deals to deliver new nuclear, carbon capture, hydrogen, and grid projects; and boosting investment in water infrastructure to tackle sewage pollution, among multiple other challenges. 

You can now sign up to attend the fifth annual Net Zero Festival, which will be hosted by BusinessGreen on October 22-23 at the Business Design Centre in London.

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