Tory backbenchers prepare to fight cost of net zero greenhouse gas emissions

It has become a constant of recent years in British politics that Conservative MPs form issue-based groups and then use them to organise from the backbenches - with impressive results. 

The European Research Group (ERG) might have had a technical sounding name - and did once claim that its purpose was providing research papers to MPs.  

But, as we know, the ERG quickly became a mighty force in Parliament, which arguably spearheaded the downfall of Theresa May.  

Then came the Covid recovery group that has been – and is - piling pressure on the prime minister over the question of lockdowns, vaccines and Covid status passports.  

But the next one could be an even bigger cause of worry for ministers.  

Later this summer, or early in the autumn, a group of MPs – expected to be comprised of at least a few dozen – is setting up a new backbench group – dedicated to the question of net zero carbon emissions.

Once again, a key figure will be Steve Baker, who has - controversially to critics - become a trustee of Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation. But this group will be led by another MP – representing south Thanet in Kent – Craig Mackinlay.  

Conservative MP Steve Baker Credit: PA

They don’t want to deny the science, but they do want to rail against what Mackinlay has described as an "overwhelming Westminster consensus" around the urgency of getting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 – whatever the cost. 

It's first worth remembering where that consensus comes from.  

People are now faced with the daily reality of the climate emergency – whether it’s the shocking images of floods in China and Germany, the environmental tragedy of bushfires in Australia, searing heat on the west coast of the Americas, or the repeated warnings - with another this week - of more extreme weather events in the UK. 

Dramatic images of storms resulting in sewage leaking into people’s homes or of the coastline being hammered by rising sea levels tend to sharpen the mind.  

And so, it is not surprising that as Boris Johnson prepares to host the world for Cop26 – a critical climate conference that comes as scientists warn there are now less than 10 years to save the planet - his government is putting forward hefty targets.  

Craig Mackinlay Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

Not just net zero by 2050, but a 78% reduction in emissions by 2035.  

To get there, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) that advises ministers, has set out enormous steps that will need to be taken – from the massive shift away from fossil fuels to renewables and green hydrogen, to the everyday ways in which we live our lives – from the way we drive, to where we live, what we eat and where we go away. 

Even with that herculean effort, advisers warn that heating of two degrees could be hit, with major consequences for the world and significant risks in Britain. 

Mackinlay and co are not going to argue against the ambition itself – but the speed and cost - highlighting the eye-watering price tag of £1.4 trillion by 2050 recently suggested by the Office for Budget Responsibility as the gross investment required over 30 years.

Mackinlay is asking for more transparency over the data being used to drive the decisions.

Oceans are taking the brunt of climate changes - absorbing CO2, warming, and taking many more tonnes of water from melting ice caps. Credit: Reuters

These MPs will argue that British consumers will find the hit hard to stomach, not least if they see even bigger polluters like China or India asking less of their populations.  

When I speak to figures inside Downing Street, there certainly is a sense that these MPs could become influential, and recognition of a problem.

They believe strongly in the need to get to net zero, and want Britain to be a world leader, but as one pointed out – "we can’t scare voters about the scale of the change" arguing for a need to take the messaging - at least - slowly.  

Already the nervousness of a backlash over cost can be seen - with the PM now said to be keen to push back the deadline for people to replace dirtier boilers from 2035 to 2040.  

Credit: Omer Messinger/PA Images

At transport, Cabinet minister Grant Shapps is said to be arguing that what the government can’t do is tell people that they will have to live much more frugal lives – with lectures about fewer holidays and eating less meat.  

Instead, he argues that the arguments must be positively focused on the jobs that can and will be created in these new green industries.  

And Labour is on a similar track – with its Shadow Climate Change Minister Matthew Pennycook determined to be much more specific about where jobs might emerge and how many there will be.  

The problem is that the scale of this challenge, as set out by the CCC, is immense - involving a de-carbonisation overhaul of almost every part of our economy. They say ministers need to do the thing they are least comfortable with – make potentially unpopular decisions for the long term, as the consequences stretch far beyond electoral cycles. The back-benchers will be trying to persuade voters that the change can happen more slowly with gradual technological shifts. Expect to hear a lot more about this.