Why Don’t British Conservative Politicians Support Renewable Energy?

Spoiler: They are pandering to their base.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss in BBC Leadership Debate
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss in the BBC Leadership Debate.

Jeff Overs / BBC / Getty Images

The hottest temperature ever was recorded in the United Kingdom recently, 40.2 degrees Celcius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Meanwhile, energy bills are predicted to "remain at "devastating" levels into 2024 and potentially beyond."

One might think the two politicians running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party—and, in turn, the future prime minister of the U.K.—would be promoting visions of cheap renewables. But instead, they are competing to go brown instead of green. 

Onshore wind turbines have been political pawns around the world. In 2014, then-Prime Minister David Cameron essentially killed new projects by making them subject to local planning rules and killing subsidies, saying people were "frankly fed up" with them. At the time, Cameron provided a quote for the ages about the conservative answer to the green movements:

"I think there are some myths we need to get over—the myth that fracking would be a disaster for the environment, the myth that GM technology means we are all going to be eating fish-flavoured tomatoes, the myth that nuclear power is inherently unstable and we shouldn't pursue it. These are myths that we need to confront if we are going to be a successful science-based country in the future."

These issues are still on the table as the candidates compete to see who can outdo the other in trashing green energy. Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson planned to relax the wind turbine ban, but leadership contender Rishi Sunak now says, "I want to reassure communities that as prime minister I would scrap plans to relax the ban on onshore wind in England, instead focusing on building more turbines offshore." 

Meanwhile, leading contender Lis Truss says she would allow fracking, pump more gas from the North Sea, "move forward faster with nuclear, including major nuclear stations but also small modular reactors," and restrict onshore wind. Most interestingly, she wants new controls on solar farms.

Truss is quoted promoting farming over energy. "We need food security," she said, reports BusinessGreen. "Farmers should be getting on with farming, not having to fill in forms, not having to comply with all kinds of rules and regulations. Our fields should be filled of our fantastic produce - whether it's the great livestock, the great arable farms. It shouldn't be full of solar panels, and I will change the rules. I will change the rules to make sure to make sure we're using our high value agricultural land for farming."

Others have noted solar farms take up very little space in the U.K. compared to airports and golf courses, are not usually sited on arable land, and that this is a non-issue.

heep grazing mustard plants at a solar farm in the Netherlands

Mischa Keijser / Getty Images

We have noted on Treehugger numerous times that agrivoltaics, the mixing of solar panels and agriculture, can be symbiotically beneficial. Treehugger's Eduardo Garcia writes that it is a win-win for clean energy and sustainable agriculture: "Combining agriculture and solar panels can bring new revenues to small farmers, save water, increase soil health, and help pollinators."

But none of this matters when the people voting to choose the conservative leader are members of the party that journalist Simon Kuper calls an "old people's party."

"Once you're an old people's party, you're free to ignore many things: the dearth of new homes, record low birth-rates, reduced opportunities for Britons to work or study abroad, not to mention climate change. Even the economy hardly matters to many pensioners because they aren’t in it. Instead, an old people’s party takes the geriatric side in culture wars, keeps house prices rising, and redistributes not to the poor but to pensioners."

While one might accuse Kuper of ageism—a lot of older people were out there gluing themselves to roads to fight climate change, and a lot of pensioners are having trouble paying for food or heat—it is generally true that conservative parties skew older, richer, and whiter.

Pilita Clarke of the Financial Times concurs, noting that "both candidates are currently appealing to a rump of Conservative party members whose votes will decide the contest." She also cringes when Sunak is asked by the BBC in a public debate what changes people should make to fight climate change. This is the possible future prime minister speaking:

"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.

Of course, these problems are not specific to the U.K. In the U.S., Republicans generally don't support renewable energy, even though most of it is in wide-open red states because that's where the wind blows and the sun shines. In Ontario, Canada, the conservative government spent millions to cancel and dismantle wind projects already under construction. "For this government to rip up contracts and literally rip wind turbines out of the ground is a huge waste of money and makes absolutely no sense," said Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner. 

But it all seems particularly strange to see this happening in the U.K. now when both gas bills and temperatures are going through the roof. Solar and wind power help mitigate both.