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The Tories’ wilful blindness on climate is baffling

The British empire was built in the age of coal, a fuel the UK had in spades. The US became a superpower in the era of oil, of which it had plenty.

China’s rise has come as the world starts switching to a greener energy system needing minerals and metals for battery and solar industries that the Middle Kingdom dominates.

No serious leader of a G7 nation can afford to ignore this geopolitical reality in 2022, nor the scale of changing global climate that is shaping it.

Yet early next month, the UK will be lumbered with such a person.

That is the conclusion to be drawn from the public appearances of the two remaining candidates in this month’s Conservative party contest to become the next prime minister.

Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, seems marginally more aware of what is at stake than the race’s frontrunner, Liz Truss, the foreign secretary.

But both threaten to dent 15 years of enviably bipartisan UK climate policy — just as other nations are starting to take notably robust action.

Last week, Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator who has stymied Joe Biden’s green energy plans in an evenly divided Senate, unexpectedly backed a $369bn bill that, if passed, would be the largest US climate package ever agreed.

The bar is low in a country that formally left the Paris climate agreement only two years ago, and the probable effect on emissions is still unclear.

But the impact on the US political economy could be transformative if the billions earmarked for electric cars and renewables create solar moguls and battery barons with the lobbying heft of today’s oil leaders.

Manchin’s move came in the same week that Germany’s cabinet approved sweeping plans to invest €177bn over the next four years to hasten the move to a greener economy less dependent on Russian fossil fuels.

Again, this is a serious sum. It may have arrived as Germany fires up coal power plants to escape Russia’s energy stranglehold, but its impact could last longer.

If we are on the brink of converting climate promises into a new period of concrete action, one would not know it from watching Truss and Sunak.

Truss has spent years in cabinets that have repeatedly backed ambitious net zero commitments that she herself has championed.

Yet, having secured the support of net zero-sceptic MPs for her leadership bid, she has backed gas fracking and other measures that will make it harder to zero-out emissions.

More baffling, her answer to soaring energy costs driven by the UK’s reliance on gas is a moratorium on green levies added to energy bills that help to cut that dependence — and make up less than 10 per cent of most bills.

Sunak has shown a finer grasp of the benefits of a green energy transition. He has boasted of pushing investment into offshore wind and other “industries of the future” in parts of northern England now “brimming with opportunity”.

But it is hard to take his green enthusiasm seriously when he has also vowed to keep a ban on new onshore wind farms that in the right conditions offer some of the cheapest electricity in the country.

It was even harder to watch him on the BBC, just days after last month’s record-smashing UK heatwave, when he was asked what lifestyle changes people should make to help tackle climate change.

“I take advice from my two young daughters who are the experts on this in our household,” he said glibly, before advising people to recycle and use energy efficiently. This week, both he and Truss said British fields should be used to grow food, not solar panels.

It is true that both candidates are currently appealing to a rump of Conservative party members whose votes will decide the contest. Both have signed a Conservative Environment Network pledge to deliver on the party’s net zero goals and, once in government, the new prime minister is likely to face bracing electoral logic.

Despite the rising cost of living, net zero is the fourth most important issue for all voters and the fifth most important for Conservatives — outranking crime and Brexit — according to polling for Onward, the conservative think-tank.

Regardless of polls, a serious leader will not ignore the climate imperative.

Later this year, the Germanwatch environmental group will publish its latest rating of countries’ climate performances. The UK has been ranked among the top 10 nations in all of the last 16 years. If it loses that standing under its next prime minister, it will mark a profound lurch backwards at precisely the wrong time that no country should endure.

pilita.clark@ft.com

@pilitaclark

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